‘Limitless’ leaves side effect of mediocrity

March 29, 2011

Like those little bottles of 5-hour energy boosts found at the convenience store, the drug NZT promises not only the caffeinated rush, but the temporary mental clarity to solve life’s more complex puzzles like the stock market or the popularity of Ke$ha.

It is the (fictional) drug of choice for Eddie (played by Bradley Cooper), a slovenly writer spiraling into a cocoon of self-loathing in “Limitless.”  When he stumbles into his former brother-in-law, he is introduced to this brain-broadening pill, which tickles his lobes in ways he never thought possible.

Instantly, he completes his long-gestating novel, decodes more secrets than Dan Brown, and decides to party like a rock star on Wall Street. He’s also popping the drug like Skittles and is given access to only a limited supply (hence the ironic title). The film sets up such a dizzying premise (both narratively and visually), that it’s not only Eddie who suffers the drug’s side effects, but the film itself.

It’s the whole “What would you do if you won the lottery” scenario, amplified by the fact that it’s internal knowledge and not just material wealth that is unlocked - a thought that holds much more promise. Add to all this that his Stephen Hawking mind is in a Bradley Cooper body, and the possibilities seem, well...

Director Neil Burger teases us early with heady camerawork, depicting this lucid world in which Eddie’s mind now rests, sweeping Google Earth and Street views that whoosh the audience through his accelerated thoughts. And had he stayed with Eddie’s wrestling with such newfound powers, this would have been a slick slice of B-grade sci-fi. But Burger tosses in random Russian mobsters, a barely there murder investigation,  and shadowy assassins that cloud up this tale of mental clarity.

Robert DeNiro fits into things well as a smug power broker, but as with most his work as of late, he is in a role well beneath his talents. His connection is just one of many the film tries to thread in order to heighten a sense of paranoia throughout. The resulting car chases and street fights seem aimed at appealing to the mouth-breathers in the audience on which this drug would most likely have little effect.

The result is Burger dumbing down a tale of heightened intelligence, and the temporary buzz felt within the first few scenes of the film quickly wears off, leaving us with side effects of mediocrity.