By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Limitless is the sort of B-movie Roger Corman would make 50 years ago, riffing on a studio smash like Inception without the lofty budget or ideas. In fact, Corman told a similar story and called it The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, a fond matinee memory, and one reason why I enjoyed Limitless so much.
Like Ray Milland in Corman's film, Bradley Cooper plays a guy discovering better then worse living through chemistry. Milland invented eyedrops to see through anything, becoming a dominant but unstable man.
Cooper's Eddie Morra ingests a few designer drugs and suddenly becomes hyper-intelligent, also enjoying the benefits of seducing women and counting casino cards before escalating greed leads to madness and danger.
It's a timeless, irresistible fantasy: power from popping a pill or pinching an eyedropper. It's also a pulp cautionary tale, warping the question of "what would you do" into "why would you do it." Limitless is Inception for Dummies, a good thing since Inception was so darn confusing.
Eddie is a blocked writer on the skids after a crushing rejection from his lover, Lindy (Abbie Cornish). He lives in a cramped, trashed apartment, dresses for a lack of success and can't begin the book he already received a cash advance to deliver.
Eddie bumps into a former brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth) from a fleeting marriage, who offers a sample of his latest black market pharmaceutical. The results are addictively exhilarating.
Suddenly Eddie has the ability to pull information from the deepest recesses of his subconscious and rapidly add more. He knows exactly what to say or do to succeed in any situation, from dodging the rent (and bedding the landlord's young wife) to speaking foreign languages. His circle of friends expands to jet-setters, and needing money to keep up, Eddie turns his gift/curse to the stock market.
Eddie's immediate windfall grabs the attention of Wall Street mogul Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), who wants Eddie's advice on an impending merger. Since it's De Niro, you can guess that Van Loon has ulterior motives and deceptive agendas.
As Eddie's addiction to smart pills grows, his supply and capabilities shrink, and Limitless shows the fallout of way too much, way too soon.
Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) spins this preposterous story with admirable seriousness and considerable sensory flair. I've never jotted as many notes during a screening about a movie's visual style, with cinematographer Jo Willems employing Google Streetview-style zooms through Manhattan, and double fish-eye lenses, creating the effect that the world is stepping aside for Eddie and his enhanced mind. We're inside Eddie's synapse-snapping thoughts, and they're startling places to be.
Limitless is a gimmick flick but a good one, as Corman would agree. Even Eddie's sponge brain might forget Burger's movie after the fade-out, but for two hours it's a fun head trip.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.