'Limitless': A pill works its magic on a loser

Bradley Cooper and Abbie Cornish in a scene from “Limitless.” He plays a deadbeat New York writer who gets turbocharged; she is his girlfriend. (Relativity Media)

It is said that most people use just 10 to 20 percent of what their brains are capable of. But what if the other 80 or 90 percent were suddenly made available?

Imagine: Cancer cured, clean energy distributed worldwide, transcendent works of art and literature everywhere. Hey, maybe we could teleport. And how about an episode of The Jersey Shore with Snooki and The Situation competing in the World Chess Championships - and one of them wins.

In the exhilarating Limitless, the neurons of a deadbeat New York writer get turbocharged, thanks to a clear little pill that Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is handed by a slick, shifty figure from his past. NZT, it's called, and it costs $800 a pop, and as Neil Burger's wild ride begins, something has gone terribly amiss.

"Obviously, I miscalculated a few things," Eddie tells us in an old-school noir voice-over, as he stands on the ledge of a high-rise, about to take the final plunge.

Cue the flashback, as Limitless - deftly adapted from Alan Glynn's novel The Dark Fields by screenwriter Leslie Dixon and directed with fractal-zoom ingenuity by Burger - rockets along as Eddie dives down the rabbit hole and emerges with a four-digit IQ and an ability to finesse the stock markets, summon lost memories in photographic detail, speak fluent French, Italian, and Mandarin, and deliver his long-dormant manuscript to his publisher. And the manuscript blows her away.

It's all too good to be true, and sure enough, midway through this terrifically inventive thriller, the downsides and side effects of NZT become manifest. But Eddie is riding high, literally and figuratively, and the danger signs are easy to ignore. Not so easy to dismiss is a Russian crime boss (Andrew Howard) who's fronted Eddie a wad of cash. Or Carl Van Loon (gotta love that name), a billionaire impressed with Eddie's Wall Street savvy. Robert De Niro plays Carl with an uncharacteristically easygoing air - here's a corporate titan so comfortable in his rarefied world that he doesn't need to raise his voice. Raising an eyebrow will suffice.

Of course, there's a woman. In Limitless, Abbie Cornish is Lindy, the girlfriend who can't believe the transformation Eddie has undergone, from slacker and slob to industrious, keenly observant, charming, witty, GQ fashion plate. Whoa, Nelly.

Cooper manages to pull this metamorphosis off with humor and aplomb - there's a lot going on with his character, and the actor convincingly conveys both the old Eddie's total loserness and the "enhanced" Eddie's swagger and acumen. More than The Hangover (and certainly more than The A-Team), this is the movie that proves Cooper has the stuff of a leading man.

Is Limitless a cautionary tale about the pharmaceuticalization of our culture? Maybe. Is it about the overarching quest for wealth and material goods in our society? You bet. Is the whole thing a cocaine metaphor? Quite possibly. And in its closing scene (the only spot where Limitless lets us down a little - and where De Niro doesn't look quite as smooth and natty), are the politics of power, and the power of politicians, seen as a good thing, or something to be feared? Open to discussion.

But what can be said without equivocation is that Limitless rocks.

And, a P.S. of local interest: Although Limitless is set in New York - and features a crazy, kinetic sequence with the camera whooshing up Manhattan's avenues to prove it - most of it was shot in Philadelphia. Natives will note familiar spots: the perimeter of Rittenhouse Square, a Marathon Grill, the old AAA headquarters on Market Street, the inside of Del Frisco's steak house. It's to the film's credit, though, that even with the displaced geography, Limitless doesn't invite a restless, random scanning of the screen. The story's too good, and dark, and fantastic, for us to be distracted by mere scenery.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.



Directed by Neil Burger. With Johnny Whitworth, T.V. Carpio, Andrew Howard, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Patricia Kalember, Robert John Burke, Anna Friel, Tomas Arana. Distributed by Relativity Media.

Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for thematic material involving a drug, violence including disturbing images, sexuality and language).