It's been nearly ten years since the release of the film Limitless which didn't necessarily put Bradley Cooper on the map. After some so-so performances from so-so character offers in so-so movies, he got a bit of a break in 2009's The Hangover. This film, unlike other successful comedies of the time, isn't entirely quoted to death. It isn't referenced too many times (you'd think Sacha Baron Cohen would copyright the term "my wife" like that old couple who monetized the use of the song Happy Birthday). It exists, unfortunately, as a success that would spawn terrible sequels. But in 2009 despite its box office successes, it existed as a smartly written ensemble comedy that never punched down and was full of surprisingly dark twists and turns. Probably the biggest success of the movie though was the smarmy asshole Bradley Cooper played and that character trope that would be his calling card for at least five years beyond his breakout. Three years later he would star in Silver Linings Playbook as a bipolar adult who's idiosyncrasies attract a dance partner played by Jennifer Lawrence. This performance would garner him both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Then he went on to become the voice of Rocket Raccoon in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. The film's strength came from the various voice actors who were unrecognizable but inherited their roles like Cooper did.
So snugly in the middle of his raunchy groomsmen adventure and his later trash panda aspirations came a movie that was by no means unsuccessful with somewhat underwhelming reviews. The movie was directed by Neil Burger, director of the terribly underrated The Illusionist and then later the director of the YA smash Divergent. It was adapted from an award winning short story called The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn. Limitless stars Bradley Cooper in a starring role as Eddie, a sluggish and almost homeless looking "writer" (Hollywood loves to shit on the every day novelist-trope) who is very far behind on the writing process of his first novel with a contract. The film focuses on the resurgence and rise to power of his character through the offer of a miracle drug known as NZT-48. His use of this pill becomes more and more fervent as he slowly suffers from an addiction to it while also flourishing financially, socially and in popularity. It's a classic rise to the top film, without so much of the drug kingpin story and more of the focus on a the middle-man addict. With the use of this drug, we hesitantly but not shamelessly enjoy his ability to topple the stocks, hook up with beautiful women and turn into the ideal rich asshole.
This is where the film starts to flourish, because Eddie is not a good guy. He's an asshole witrh an addiction problem, a white man who found opportunity in drug use, and in his dependence uses the pill to create his own rags-to-riches timeline. Should we root for Eddie? He's abusing the system from early on, but his earnestness and modesty saves face until he's finally the playboy billionaire the film wants him to be by the third act. This works though because of Bradley Cooper and his struggles and highs, playing the asshole so well while also being easy to sympathize with as a victim of drug abuse. We are also punished by a voice-over narrative by Cooper who get's smarmier by the scene, in an almost Fight Club approach. This is perhaps the weakest aspect of the film, dumbing down the hero's journey to the laymen audience member. What instead works is the visual narrative of the use of brighter and more sun-washed filters as he promotes himself from a ragged New-Yorkian, to an international tourist. The beaches and buildings and parties become so absorbed in light and color that you feel like you're on the same high as Eddie. That's the director's intent, and it works.
So where's the conflict (despite the moral degradation)? The film slowly but surely balances his success story along with the side effects of NZT-48 called "time-skips" where he has blackouts for long and threatening periods of time. The stakes get higher as he gets in over his head with the loan-sharks and addicts who attempt to blackmail him through his new relationship with Lindy (Abby Cornish). He's also robbed, chased after and shot at throughout most of the final act. Without the pill he nearly dies, and in one tight corner he encourages Lindy to consume one to be powerful enough to evade a baddie.
It's a very zippy and fast-paced structure, which balances fun and thrills, guilt and ego. It's in the third act where the film gets BATSHIT INSANE. Spoilers ahead!!
Some of the craziest moments come from the acts of violence in the third act, including a character who swings a ten year old girl with ice blades as a weapon and the penultimate scene where Eddie actually kills a villain who ingested the drug and drinks up some of his blood to get the high to have the strength to survive and escape. (Metal.)
The film works because of its tight direction and not just its reliance on Bradley Cooper. Right from the get-go we receive an opening credits kaleidoscopic zoom through the city setting at night, a shot so bizarre and arresting it could make Scorcese proud.
"The film notably incorporates fractal zooming, jump-cutting, and out-of-body scenes to convey the effect of the wonder drug on the protagonist. Green screens and motion control photography were used to produce the visual effect of characters performing an action and then turning around to see themselves doing that action again.."
The visual flair of the film isn't overweight with special effects and actually manages to keep a style in the realm of a non-overly indulgent Guy Ritchie flick. It benefits from a supporting character arc with Robert DeNiro, who to my surprise on re-watching, doesn't sleepwalk through the role. I think the biggest risk the film takes is in the ending, which I won't totally spoil, but would say some people might find it to be a cop-out. With the ending and the leaning towards action and suspense over the exploration of a brain with "100% capacity" , the critics may have seen a product flashier than its own depth, with a cumulative 69% RT score. I would argue the shine and style of the film exists as a front for a truly fun and smart adventure. This film may not have been the start to a solid career, but I would argue it's hiding as one of Bradley Cooper's finest roles, and for that it should be viewed.