Directed by Neil Burger
There’s a cynical genius to Limitless, which made a lot of money at the box office in its first week. Like the television show Lost, it sets up a fantastically intriguing and complicated puzzle and then just doesn’t bother to solve it. It’s the perfect solution to a creative problem, if you think about it. Imagine writing a mystery novel about the murder of a person in a locked room inside a tank full of piranhas on a space station. That turns out to be a hard nut, and when you can’t actually crack it, you just don’t. You end the book without solving the mystery.
No one would ever publish such a book; but no such editorial scruples exist any longer in Hollywood. In Limitless, director Neil Burger and screenwriter Leslie Dixon certainly establish an undeniably intriguing premise (based on a novel by Alan Glynn I haven’t read). The attractive and quick-witted actor Bradley Cooper gets hold of a drug that allows him to use 100 percent of his brain power. He writes a book in three days, he learns languages in a few minutes, and he takes $12,000 and day-trades it into $2 million. He gets his beloved girlfriend back and attracts the attention of a corporate raider played by Robert De Niro.
But there’s a catch. Or rather, there are a bunch of catches. Sometimes when Cooper takes it, time slips away from him. And then he learns that if he stops taking it, he will die. But he has a finite amount of the drug, and others seem determined to get his stash away from him.
What is this drug? Why does an ex-brother-in-law he hasn’t seen in nine years give it to him? Why does the ex-brother-in-law get killed? Why does another girl in a hotel room get killed later? Who makes the drug? Where did the ex-brother-in-law get it? Why does it have these side effects? Who is the corporate raider? Why does he want to merge with another corporate raider? How does the drug play into this merger?
It turns out that Burger and Dixon do not have a single answer to any of these questions. So to keep the movie going, they just keep throwing bits of new plot at us to distract us. A Russian mobster gets involved somehow. So does a guy who starts following Cooper’s girlfriend. There’s a cop after Cooper, and at least six people are killed, but Cooper only ends up spending a few minutes in a police station. A movie about a very smart person actually needs to be smarter than this.
And truth to tell, Limitless is itself not very smart, especially when it comes to examining the nature of hyper-intelligence. Burger and Dixon seem to confuse it with social self-confidence, which would have come as a great surprise to, say, John Stuart Mill or Samuel Johnson. Cooper not only remembers everything he’s ever seen or read, but manages to use this to get himself on private planes and take trips to Mexico, where he drives a car really fast and goes cliff-diving. This makes no sense. First of all, a person who remembers everything and then tells it to you is more likely to be a crashing bore than the life of the party. And second, why would the smartest man in the universe want to bother cliff-diving with a bunch of dull bankers and Eurotrash?
If the wish fulfillment Burger and Dixon had wanted to explore in Limitless was the loss of inhibition, that would have been fine—but by mixing that up with brain power, they make it difficult for us to understand, care about, or root for Cooper’s character. Fortunately for them, Cooper is so profoundly likable, in and of himself, that he drags the movie along behind him like a good guy helping a really drunk friend get home.
Burger comes up with a stylish new effect to portray the way time speeds up for Cooper—a point-of-view shot in which you seem to be traveling through the streets of New York near light speed. But cool though it is, it’s wrong for the story. Limitless is supposedly about the pleasures of focus and concentration, but in its mad jumping-about from place to place and plot line to plot line, it is the opposite of focused. It may be the first film to need Ritalin.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s movie critic.