In Limitless, opening today, Bradley Cooper is a poor schmuck, until he takes a brain-enhancing drug that gives him a four-digit I.Q. So what does he do with amazing mental powers? He goes into finance.
Limitless is the thriller we've been waiting for about yuppie apotheosis. It's the movie that does what Oliver Stone probably wanted to do in Wall Street 2: get inside the culture of brilliance, cockiness and chaos that drove our economy off a cliff. And it's a surprisingly fun ride, too.
Soon after Eddie Morra (Cooper) first gets superhuman brain power in Limitless, he's holding forth to a crowd of adoring yuppies and bankers. And he says that it's human nature to overreach. Nobody ever thinks they've made enough money, or taken enough risks. Any financial deal will eventually go south because people get too ambitious or greedy. Just like Germany didn't think, "Hey, Poland and France are enough. Let's not invade Russia in the winter. Let's take a break."
That's as close to a thematic statement as Limitless ever comes — this film doesn't beat you over the head with its ideas, but works them in fairly sneakily. Mostly, we're just swept up in watching Eddie go from a struggling writer who can't finish his first book, to a hotshot banker who's got the world at his feet but knives at his back. (Once Eddie becomes super-smart, being a successful author is no longer a worthy goal for him. There's probably a message in there somewhere.)
And Eddie over-reaches, just like everybody else in the movie. There is such a thing as being too smart for your own good — or even, Limitless suggests, being so smart you're dumb. Over and over, we watch Eddie being so smart, he becomes an idiot. Meanwhile, he's wheeling and dealing and partying and putting together huge financial deals, and it's all one big rush of excitement. We don't worship wealth, the film suggests — we worship brilliance, and we assume that wealth comes from brilliance, at least on Wall Street.
Eddie's fast-talking, super-clever spiel brings him to the attention of legendary financier Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) who becomes part-mentor, part-evil boss to Eddie. Eddie comes on board to help Carl create the merger of the century with another financial giant, but Carl will effortlessly destroy Eddie if he makes a single wrong move. Oh, and meanwhile, Russian gangsters are after Eddie, and he's gotten himself in some legal troubles, and he has to hire two ginormous bodyguards and move into a supposedly impregnable bunker. The more powerful gets, the more insane the lengths he has to go to, to protect himself.
Eddie's new-found cleverness is the result of a drug known only as NZT, which he first thinks is a new FDA-approved medication but which he quickly realizes isn't anything of the sort. Over time, he discovers
that other people will kill to get their hands on a supply of the drug, and he's not the first person to have taken it by any means — it's been around for a while, and other past and present NZT users are in his midst, talking a blue streak or pining for the chemical awesomeness they've lost.
Part of the sales pitch for NZT is the old saw that you only use 20 percent of your brain, and this drug lets you use 100 percent — which is silly, but no sillier than the stuff people say to pimp other drugs to people. Here's an infographic the studio sent us about how the drug lets you use all of your brain. (As always, you can right-click and "open link in new tab" to view it.)
Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones) uses a lot of neat trickery to convey just how thrilling the world is on NZT. There's an "endless zoom" effect where we just keep zooming and zooming and the world seems to streak past, which I think I've seen before but is well used here — it's first revealed during the opening credits, but crops up here and there during the film. Also, when Eddie is just plain Eddie, the world is tinged with gray, but when he takes NZT, suddenly everything is super bright colors and brisk details, and there's sometimes another Eddie standing nearby watching himself.
When you overdose on NZT, the world becomes a sort of candy-colored blur — again with the idea that you can become so smart, you become stupid. At a few points, you start to question how much of Eddie's perceptions are even real, and whether reality itself is breaking down around him.
But then Eddie starts to confront some of the limitations of the drug he's on. For one thing, NZT causes mysterious blackouts, where Eddie doesn't remember long stretches of time. For another, when it wears off, it leaves Eddie blank-minded and stammering. But also, the long-term effects of NZT may not be super beneficial — and we see Eddie popping the pills with more and more alacrity.
And most of all, NZT doesn't just make you smarter — it changes your personality. It makes you feel invulnerable and super-human, because you can think your way out of anything. NZT makes you feel like an ubermensch, able to dance rings around ordinary mortals.
(At times, you see people on NZT looking at random objects and putting together a complicated stunt in their heads, sort of the way Amadeus Cho thinks in the Incredible Hercules comics. It turns him into Chuck on the Intersect 2.0, able to do kung-fu all of a sudden because he's seen a kung-fu movie. At times, letters or stock-tickers appear randomly on the walls or ceilings, as Eddie comes up with some moment of stock-picking brilliance. )
So eventually, the film starts to ask whether Eddie's even still Eddie when he's on NZT. Does the drug alter your brain chemistry so much that you become a whole different person? Is it akin to becoming a cyborg, or a vampire? Like a lot of the best science fiction, Limitless explores how far we can use technology and chemistry to change ourselves before we lose our identities.
So not only is Limitless a pretty great movie about Wall Street's culture of excess, it's also a better Philip K. Dick adaptation than The Adjustment Bureau. If you showed me both movies and asked which one was based on a Dick story, I'd pick Limitless.
True, there's no "reality is fake and mysterious people are controlling stuff" thing in Limitless, but there is a drug that plays with reality, and warps the identity of those who take it. And although there are shadowy conspiracies in Limitless, they're not the point — the point is that the ground under your feet is never as solid as it appears.
But Limitless also does prove that science fiction is the best way to talk about real-world issues. It's hard to make a good movie that's directly about the Wall Street feeding frenzy, because it's such a touchy subject and people have strong feelings on all sides. Science fiction lets you make a movie about bankers running amuck and thinking they're invulnerable, without actually coming out and saying that's what you're doing. And like I said, Limitless is fairly subtle in its themes and never bludgeons the viewer.
A lot of credit for this film's extreme watchability has to go to Bradley Cooper, who makes an appealing douchebag, whom you never stop rooting for. It's probably pretty hard to make a character who becomes so douchey and arrogant likable, but Cooper pulls it off, and you never want to see him turn into a drooling idiot in NZT-withdrawal.
True, the ending of Limitless is a bit pat, but only a little. And with its chaotic, CG-enhanced visuals and clever use of color and texture, Limitless is an emblematic film about our era, the financial binge and purge, the cleverness and insanity, and the sense of invulnerability. It's stylized and demented, and a surprisingly fun thrill-ride.