“Limitless” is an ideal movie to see on an airplane or hotel pay-TV. Undemanding, entertaining, engaging without requiring much attention, it’s straight-down-the-middle entertainment. Not a work of art, but so what?
This is, essentially, a parable about drugs: a drug-that-solves-everything that doesn’t solve anything. Specifically, MDT-48, a clear pill that enables the user to gain full access to the resources of his or her brain, and thus to show up as a genius.
The conception of MDT-48 and the elaboration of its beneficial effect are wonderful: ecstatic sci-fi wish fulfillment fantasy. Aldous Huxley taught us that the mind is like a faucet: most effective, in survival terms, when nearly closed. That’s our default setting, with the stream of available data reduced to a manageable trickle. Ordinarily, most of our brains’ potential is wasted — but MDT-48 solves that problem, opening up the faucet, granting full access to the entire mind. It sounds like LSD, only less freaky: You can handle going to the office on MDT-48, and stay ninja-cool while brutal thugs are trying to kill you.
Like any recreational drug, this one messes up its users. The side effects — physical, mental, and moral — lead to the quandary driving this story: Loser Eddie Morra, played by Bradley Cooper, uses the drug to become a Master of the Universe, and guess what – he attains mastery and gets into trouble.
The opening sequence and titles are astonishingly fresh, beautiful, thrilling – more like a video game than a movie, in a good way. You speed down streets, going right through cars, as you’ve never done before, and it’s exhilarating in a druggy way.That visual flair, though overdone when animated letters fall from the ceiling like snow, keeps you interested in “Limitless” even when the plotting goes lame.
Regrettably, Eddie narrates the movie in voice over, starting with the melodramatic opening scene. Except in documentaries, voice-over narration in movies correlates almost perfectly with unsatisfactory story-telling. Then we find out that the narrator is a writer, and damn — we’re stuck in yet another hall-of-mirrors story about writers writing.
In a bad way, “Limitless” is a writer’s fantasy come true. Eddie, the blocked writer, finds the drug that unlocks his creativity, and with ease and grace he writes a successful book. (That’s where the alphabet sprinkles come in.) Having addressed that anxiety, he resolves his remaining inadequacies by making huge money, attracting beautiful women, and getting a good haircut. All it takes is the right pill. How many screenwriters have had this fantasy? What’s insidious here is that the artifact of the movie proves its point: Hey, baby, this script has been produced; “Limitless” has been released. We did nearly $80 million at the box office! MDT-48 works!
Still, wish-fulfillment is fun. And “Limitless” can be very clever, even insightful. For instance, the first thing Eddie wants to do when the drug kicks in is to clean up what’s messy in his life, starting with his apartment. That’s how we all might behave, with the benefit of super-cognition. Meanwhile, the visualization by director Neil Burger sparkles and surprises. Bradley Cooper nails his role. The situation is compelling, and the plot heats up as we turn from writing, a tedious subject, to making money, which brings Robert De Niro onstage, and then on to danger. Despite yourself, you start to care. For long stretches, this thriller thrills.
“Limitless” is based on a book: The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn. I skimmed through the first 30 pages. You don’t need to read it – good news, since Amazon is selling the new paperback edition for $100.