The giddy high-concept Bradley Cooper star vehicle “Limitless” is a lot of things, and it’s at least a big bowl of Adderall-laced grown-up storytelling candies. It may also be something more fiercely accomplished, say, a twenty-first century artifact where the best of 1948 meets the best of 1999: Let’s describe Neil Burger’s latest as director “Abraham Polonsky’s ‘The Matrix.'” It’s a hyper-local amped-up Manhattan melodrama that pulses through one man’s mind, one user’s bloodstream.
Eddie Morra’s (Cooper) been writing a novel for years. Thinking of writing a novel, telling people he’s writing. Living in a Chinatown flop, stubbled and hair a shoulder-length mop—”Who dresses this way who isn’t a homeless person? A writer,” Eddie’s knowing narration says—he moves through a timelessness of booze and stilled afternoon light in Lower East Side dives. He’s the type of writer manqué who hasn’t burned through influences yet, who would have crisp copies of Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” and “Barthes by Barthes” on his tenement windowsill.
On the street, Eddie bumps into his ex-brother-in-law, who coolly says, “Ah, you’re still trying to write.” There’s a proposition involved, and it involves a translucent glassy button of a pill, a candy pop that we later learn is called NZT. We use ten percent of our potential, ragged Eddie is told by his old acquaintance. This one pill? A hundred percent. “Coming on stream next year,” he’s told. After taking it, Eddie becomes a super-noticer: his powers of observation crazily heightened, like the best police detective, or writer, or filmmaker ever. Pattern recognition, he’s suddenly the world’s best at it. He knows the names of everything, begins to recall scraps of things he’s seen in the distant past, and synthesizes it all into gangbusters confidence. “Enhanced Eddie” is the highest of high-functioning Aspergerians. “Works better if you’re already smart,” he notes. He finishes his book, “Illuminating the Dark Fields” in under a week. “You’re kidding, words have appeared on paper, written by you,” his editor says, taking his pages. Add a haircut and Tom Ford suits… “All my fear, all my shyness gone,” a lovely summa of the added placebo function of the very real (fantasy) pharma. This confidence leads to an alliance with mega-oligarch financier Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). (“Be warned, he’s mercurial… and he needs direct answers.”) But there are also further complications with getting a supply of the drug from the supplier and staying out of danger once gangsters get into the mix. Meanwhile, the wrong dose leads to emotional instability and causes disorienting speed-ups of time. NZT, maybe it’s not supposed to be “coming on stream” anytime soon.
Screenwriter Leslie Dixon (“Outrageous Fortune,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “The Thomas Crown Affair”) found a 2001 tech thriller, “Dark Fields,” by Alan Glynn, and says she dived into the material without an assignment, so transfixed she was by the metaphors for power and control that are rife in the material. Director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) finds a pace early on that grows more relentless once Eddie has the keys to his mind, and there are turns that have the ferocity of a movie from a small post-Soviet republic. An ending that had a more Romanian dolor was reshot weeks ago, according to Cooper, but what we’re left, superficially more optimistic, remains richly ambiguous: we don’t know who’s zooming who. There’s always another hall of mirrors in “Limitless.”
Sadly, there’s no limitless supply of movies packed with casual erudition—not knowing, not know-it-all—delivered at convincing (or at least entertaining) pitch and lilt. This pharma pseud Eddie becomes a James Bond: worldly and analytic, willing to kill, always with at least the key vocabulary of a hundred words in any lingo to seal a deal (or at least a social compact). The tossed-off talk is a glorious fruitcake of writerly grandiloquence, both from Dixon and Eddie. And Cooper’s blue eyes are like limitless skies: they glow azure like waters off a coastal reef when he’s in his medicated moment.
Burger offers style to burn from the start for this vivid offhand satire of candy-colored dream life: the dream life of angles. He stylizes New York City in a title sequence to match “Fight Club”‘s sped-up traceries of the ganglia and the brain. There are other Fincher-esque niceties, including a telescoping effect, a view that telescopes toward the street ahead, the horizon. But beyond mid-level Fincher, there are hints of Tom Tykwer, the Wachowskis, Andrew Niccol and the great screenwriter Abraham Polonsky in the mix. Maybe a little of Alan Pakula’s knack for paranoia, especially the way several scenes with fists or truncheons pounded at locked doors are shot. Plus, there’s the long speech by De Niro where he lays out the game the two men are playing that has the poetry of Polonsky’s critique-of-capital thriller “Force Of Evil.”
There’s a confident punk splendor to the movie’s restless spatter of data and imagery. There’s something of the nouvelle roman to its greedy look, texture tumbling, light-greedy, rangy leaps of imagery like a burst of description in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s fiction, a shift and burst of texture, splinters and skips. It’s as much as the sense of the story as the words and plot. This is the arty, artful James Bond movie no one ever made. More subjective. More intellectually playful. “I don’t have delusions of grandeur, I have a recipe for grandeur.” Isn’t that delusions of grandeur in so few words? “Don’t make the classic smart person mistake of thinking you’re smarter than everyone else,” Van Loon warns Eddie. “Limitless” doesn’t make the classic safe-career mistake of thinking every audience is dumb.
“Limitless” opens Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.