We live in the age of the power fantasy. Perhaps because so many of us feel powerless and vulnerable in our everyday lives, we gravitate toward stories of seemingly ordinary people who, through some twist of fate — and/or proximity to a radioactive spider — become something much greater. My three-year-old son wants to be a superhero, for example, and judging from Marvel Studios’ domination of pop culture, it sure seems like everyone else does as well.
The exquisitely preposterous 2011 film Limitless offers a different kind of power fantasy, but one every bit as seductive, if not more so. In it, an ordinary, even sub-par man acquires incredible, superhuman powers not from a meteor or by virtue of being an alien from another planet, but rather from ingesting a simple pill.
Oh sure, people on powerful stimulants like cocaine, meth, Adderall, and MDMA often feel like they’re dazzlingly clever, undeniably charming sexual powerhouses, and smarter and more capable than everyone else, but then they come down and realize that those feelings are not just illusory, but also actively dangerous.
In Limitless, however, the wonder drug NZT-48 doesn’t just make users feel like they’ve skipped a few rungs on the old evolutionary ladder; they genuinely become superhuman geniuses. It’s “better living through chemistry” taken to its extreme. As the film’s protagonist brags to someone who accuses him of having delusions of grandeur, “I do not have delusions of grandeur. I have an actual recipe for grandeur.” That recipe, needless to say, is of the pharmaceutical, pharmacological variety.
But before Edward “Eddie” Morra makes the leap from human to superhuman and then to something resembling a man-God, he’s first an unabashed schmuck with little going for him other than the fact that he looks like (an admittedly uglied-up) Bradley Cooper. Here’s the deal, though: If you’re ever named the “Sexiest Man Alive” — which People magazine dubbed Cooper the same year that Limitless came out — you do not get to play a loser everyone dismisses because he’s unimpressive or forgettable, and you especially do not get to do it while you still hold the title.
The film does attempt to de-sexify its breathtakingly handsome leading man (those eyes! Have you ever seen a bluer blue?) by giving him a wild, unruly mane of hair, sometimes pulled into an unflattering ponytail, along with an uncomfortable-looking perpetual semi-beard and a wardrobe of shapeless jeans and sweatshirts from Salvation Army’s “Not Even Trying” collection. It doesn’t quite work, but at least they tried.
On the other hand, the filmmakers are far more successful in their attempts to make Eddie’s personality unattractive. Despite an existing book contract, Eddie spends his days staring impotently at a blank screen on his laptop and getting day-drunk in a bar, where he unsuccessfully tries to convince fellow patrons that his science fiction novel is actually a “manifesto about the plight of the individual in the twenty-first century.” Even if you do look like Bradley Cooper, talk like that and people are going to tune you out.
Limitless is an adaptation of a novel about a struggling writer who becomes a successful writer, so it’s appropriate that it opens with a flurry of literary devices faithfully translated to film. First, we begin not at the beginning, but rather in what we will learn is an alternate account of a crucial moment deep into the film’s third act. Eddie is perched on a ledge outside his insanely expensive, well-fortified apartment/sanctuary when danger threatens. Because this is an exquisitely un-serious film, this danger comes in the luridly concrete form of an unseen Russian wielding an unseen but very loud chainsaw with clear designs on Eddie’s handsome flesh.
In addition to this melodramatic tableau, we also get the wised-up narrator whispering his truths to the audience. Eddie never shuts up, and his patter never gets more subtle or sophisticated than an opening quip as he prepares to plummet to the earth from his sleek pad: “I’d come so close to having an impact on the world. Now the only thing I’d have an impact on would be the sidewalk.”
That brings us to the third literary device the filmmakers employ from the get-go: Eddie’s opening plummet is a fake-out — something he thought about in the moment, with his brain’s synapses firing wildly, but ultimately chose not to do. But we don’t learn that for another hour and a half.
The journey to get there follows Cooper’s Eddie as he faces down a looming deadline from his publisher and a recent break-up with a girlfriend who left him because he’s a nebbishy small-time nothing. Just when all seems lost, Eddie has a chance meeting with his scummy ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth).
Vernon, a drug dealer by trade, takes pity on our hapless hero and gives him one pill of an experimental new smart drug called NZT-48 that he promises will change Eddie’s life, transforming him instantly from zero to hero. Eddie is desperate, so he pops that pill, and suddenly his fuzzy, booze-sodden brain becomes as powerful and as finely tuned as a Maserati engine.
Everything changes instantly for Eddie, as the world becomes one long series of green lights, invitations, and thumbs up. Where everything was once a struggle, he now coasts through a charmed life.
What Eddie does with his amazing new powers is unmistakably human: while they do help him make the professional leap from struggling writer to prolific literary genius, he otherwise exploits them to have as much indiscriminate sex with beautiful women as he can handle. Confronted by his landlord’s apoplectic daughter about late rent, for starters, he instantly intuits what her problems are and seduces her while simultaneously helping her with her schoolwork.
After he’s screwed his way through much of Manhattan and reconnected with a past love, Eddie decides to use his super genius not to cure cancer or to foster peace in the Middle East, but rather to make a crap-ton of money. His various shady business dealings eventually put him in the path of a fearsome titan of finance played by Robert De Niro, whose supporting turn here likely would have been beneath him during the golden days of the 1970s and 1980s but registers now as one of his best performances and best films of the past decade.
Limitless feels like a smart-drug variation on the classic novel Flowers for Algernon, which was made into Charly, the movie that won Cliff Robertson an Oscar for his performance as a developmentally challenged man who becomes a genius through experimental surgery. As in Flowers for Algernon and Charly, Limitless‘ Eddie backslides after becoming superhuman and worries about reverting back to his unremarkable former self. He becomes dependent upon NZT-48 and begins to experience troubling blackouts and memory glitches, not unlike those severely addicted to certain narcotics. His concern is further justified when he learns he’s not the only person to benefit from the drug’s miraculous powers, and that his fellow addicts have shared an unfortunate tendency to die or become desperately unwell.
The advantage, of course, of making a movie about a fictional drug is that it can be whatever you need it to be for any given scene. This gives Limitless the freedom to cheat a little and first portray NZT-48 as God’s gift to the common man, before it becomes the root of an affliction that threatens Eddie’s life and sanity, and then, when the narrative calls for it again, the perfect drug that just needs to be managed and controlled to be effective.
There’s ample opportunity for social commentary here on the ways success, power, intelligence, and opportunity can corrupt people as well as institutions, but Limitless instead opts for a more lurid, sensationalistic take. It’s not high art, but it is entertainingly shameless and shamelessly entertaining. This is a trashy pulp paperback of a B-movie. It’s a silly, melodramatic exploration of what it might be like to transcend the boundaries of mere mortals and become a super-intelligent sex god who looks like Bradley Cooper, who can fight as well as Bruce Lee because he watched one of his movies as a kid (an actual detail from the film), and who is a human Rosetta Stone because he can pick up any language just by listening to a few hours of it. Wish fulfillment does not get much sillier or more fun than it does here.
But let’s be clear about one thing. Limitless is full of scenes where Eddie, enhanced by NZT-48 and unused to adulation, lectures arrogantly on some matter or another to the clear-cut awe and admiration of everyone around him. He’s sheared off any last remaining vestiges of his loserdom scruff, cleaned up with a chic new haircut, and invested in some expensive suits tailor-made for the world’s sexiest and smartest man. All of this only works because Bradley Cooper is Bradley Cooper. It’s safe to assume that if this preachy know-it-all were played by someone decidedly less attractive, they would meet a very different response.
Limitless flaunts its total disconnect from anything approaching reality, beginning with its insistence on repeating the old canard about how we only use 20 percent of our brainpower. Yet it does capture some of the sweaty compulsiveness of addiction, the way it strips people of their humanity and reduces their increasingly feral existences to an animal-like hunt for the poison they need to survive. This understanding of the psychology of addiction just happens to coexist with a near-total contempt for verisimilitude. How wonderfully perverse is it that a movie about a man whose brain is operating at peak performance is best enjoyed by people who’ve shut their own brains off for 105 minutes?
Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin