In a video that quickly made its way across the Web this week, a man in an orange coat demonstrated how he’d hacked into Times Square’s massive video screens using only his iPhone and a humble transmitter that looked as if he’d salvaged it from a Commodore 64. The video garnered some 800,000 views on YouTube before the New York Times reported that it’s a fake—you can’t really go around broadcasting clips from your iPhone onto the JumboTron of your choosing. (And thank goodness for that.)
The video, it turns out, is a viral ad for Limitless (Relativity), the new movie starring Bradley Cooper as a man whose life is transformed by NZT, a designer drug that allows him to harness his full cognitive potential. I can’t say I really understand the connection between the video and Limitless—is the inventor of the iPhone gadget supposed to be hopped up on NZT? It’s true that both films proceed from plausible premises, and both toy with our sense of what’s possible in our quicksilver times, but only one avoids descending into a confusing, dispiriting mess. It’s the one that’s two-minutes long.
Limitless is frustrating, in part, because it could have been much better. The set-up is simple but clever: Performance-enhancing drugs already help us do our homework, have sex into our dotage, and hit monster home runs. What if someone developed a drug that allowed us to concentrate for hours on end, access all of our memories instantly, and perform complex mathematical calculations like a supercomputer—a sort-of Adderall ad absurdum. It doesn’t seem so farfetched that such a drug might be around the corner. How would we use it? Would it merely allow us to become our best selves? Or would such heightened powers turn us into fundamentally different people, swollen Mark McGwires of the mind?
The guinea pig in this thought experiment is Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), an unkempt, unaccomplished writer with a book deal but no idea how to get past that tricky first sentence. (Director Neil Burger establishes Eddie’s writer’s block with the standard tableaux—the writer staring at a blank computer screen, the writer enjoying a midday cocktail—and with a more ingenious, more disturbing scene of artistic stagnation: the writer eating a cold pizza crust while perched on the toilet.) One day, Eddie bumps into his ex-brother-in-law Vern (Johnny Whitworth), an unctuous drug dealer from whom one should clearly not accept so much as a tip on a decent bagel place. But such is Eddie’s state of despair that when Vern offers him a hit of NZT—in the form of a pill that looks less like a pharmaceutical than a spare shirt button—Eddie says what the heck and pops it.
To Eddie’s surprise, the NZT works just as Vern has promised. He completes a hefty chunk of his book in a single afternoon. (His editor pronounces it “a little grandiose” but wants to see more.) After subsequent doses, he finishes the book, learns the piano in three days, picks up Italian from a Berlitz tape, wins a street fight using moves remembered from Bruce Lee flicks and Muhammad Ali bouts, and starts making big money as a day trader. He also suddenly enjoys great success with women, who are impressed by his stunning intelligence. Or perhaps just his stunning good looks? Cooper, who gamely attempts to sell himself as a quasi-intellectual schlub in the movie’s opening scenes, soon reverts to well-tailored type, wooing women and driving fast cars in the mode of his A-Team character, the irresistible rake Templeton “Faceman” Peck.
Alas for Eddie, there’s a catch with NZT—it’s habit-forming. Once a dose wears off, he returns to being his normal self. And as he rises through the world of finance—how quickly he abandons the life of the mind!—his normal self isn’t good enough. Eddie has secured a position at the right hand of corporate raider Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro, doing a mediocre Gordon Gekko),and stands to make a bundle on a deal Van Loon is closing. Except Eddie’s supply of NZT is dwindling, and the only known dealer, Vern, has inconveniently turned up with a gunshot wound to the head.
With his stash of pills nearly depleted, Eddie becomes increasingly desperate, and the movie becomes increasingly hard to follow. By the third act, Eddie is double-dosing to stay a step ahead of Van Loon, a dead-behind-the-eyes stalker, a Russian loan shark, the NYPD, a worried girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), and the withdrawal symptoms of NZT, which has turned out to have more side effects than good old Vern let on. (Some patients have experienced hallucinations, memory loss, coma, and death. Also dry mouth.) The last 25 minutes are so befuddling that this viewer felt he would have needed to Hoover a small mountain of pure Bolivian NZT to sort out all the twists.
Of course, Hollywood thrillers are permitted to be a little grandiose, and the overly complicated plot is less troubling than the movie’s dubious takeaway. I suppose what follows is a spoiler—it certainly spoiled the movie for me. NZT ravages some of Eddie’s acquaintances over the course of the film, but Cooper is more at home playing the winner than the loser, and there’s no going back to Papa John’s on the john for him. In the end, Limitless is neither a cautionary tale about the dangers of performance enhancement nor a subversive brief on behalf of it. It’s an addled yarn about how awesome drugs can be if only you’re badass enough to quit anytime you want. In other words, it’s the perfect movie for our Charlie Sheen moment: Do the drugs, get the girls, keep the money. Bitchin’.