Silver Screen: Limitless ***
The problem with writing a character who is a super genius is that the writer is himself probably not a super genius-- otherwise he'd probably be savvy enough to aspire to something more lucrative and rewarding than being the least-appreciated person in any given Hollywood production. The character must outsmart every member of the audience at all times, or the gimmick quickly gets silly.
This is the exact conundrum faced by screenwriter Leslie Dixon (and considering she wrote the adaptation of Pay It Forward, it's a real leap) in Limitless, a film based on Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields. The conceit is an intriguing one: Hack writer Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is introduced, via his shady ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), to a powerful new designer drug that allows the user to access the full potential of his or her brain. Every stray memory and long-ago-learned fact suddenly becomes not only instantly accessible but integrated into a highly evolved matrix of thoughts and ideas the user suddenly has the gumption to put into action. Essentially, anyone who takes the drug becomes the ideal version of themselves.
For Eddie, that means finally starting and quickly finishing his long-gestating novel, making a boatload of money day trading, and winning back his beautiful ex-girlfriend (Abbie Cornish). So long as he's doped, he's untouchable-- something that comes in handy when Vernon turns up dead in his ransacked apartment, clearly from somebody searching for his stash.
The new and improved Eddie, in possession of one of the last caches of the pills, quickly becomes a target for mysterious figures-- he doesn't know if they're the manufactures, addicts, or an interested third party. Meanwhile, he's on the cusp of becoming a world power player thanks to a budding business partnership with Karl Van Loon (Robert De Niro, who doesn't have enough to do here), a billionaire mogul who's eager to find out the secret behind Eddie's suddenly extraordinary life.
There's a fantastic premise at the core of Limitless, one that could be fodder for cerebral soft sci-fi, a trippy action flick, a meditative thriller, or a wry parable for our medication-happy times. The trouble is, director Neil Burger takes the film in several of those directions at once without ever really resolving any of them. What starts as the kind of heady, acerbic speculative-fiction riff Andrew Niccol is usually good for becomes a moderately interesting thriller before shifting gears altogether and fusing a Great Gatsby-inspired subplot with a handful of loose scenes suggesting that addiction to daily meds might not be such a great thing-- before pretty much reversing itself on that last point altogether.
What Limitless definitively does not have is a cogent opinion about the gimmick around which it revolves. De Niro's suspicious tycoon makes an interesting speech about earned wisdom versus pure knowledge, and the notion never really comes up again. The side effects of the drug take a dark turn that leads to yet a second crime-thriller subplot that is absurdly left dangling, as if a key scene was left on the cutting-room floor. Bleak prognostications about the long-term effects of the stuff-- courtesy of yet another subplot that introduces both a plot point and a potential theme that are abandoned, this one featuring Anna Friel as Eddie's strung-out ex-wife-- are built up only to be dismissed offhand later on. All of these missed opportunities are compounded by standard-issue plot holes, most of which find the smartest man in the world making blatantly dumb decisions or wildly improbable mistakes (an addict with a four-digit I.Q. really didn't notice he was down to one last pill in his jar?).
The filmmakers certainly did get the casting right, though. Who better to play the self-assured most brilliant person on the planet than Cooper, whose J. Crew-model handsome mug is permanently affixed in the visage of a man who's idly thinking about all the things he knows that you don't. He's smug bordering on insufferable, but he's ingratiating nonetheless.
Despite its flaws, Limitless does offer some decent thrills and a high concept strong enough to carry the movie through some rough patches, to say nothing of a nifty puzzler of an ending that's a little more clever and subtle than the rest of the movie ever tries to be. It's neither the trip nor the ride it could have been, but it'll do until the next fix.