Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a writer, which is to say that he's a loser. His girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), has just thrown in the towel, and who can blame her? But Eddie just bumped into his ex-brother-in-law, a drug dealer with a new pill to push. It's called "NZT," it's clear, it's allegedly FDA-approved, and it allows the user to take full advantage of their brain's capabilities (as opposed to the rumored 20% we only tap into now).
In essence, it transforms Eddie into Bradley Cooper, a beyond-suave math whiz who's finished his novel with ease and is now the toast of Wall Street. The drug's benefits are -- wait for it -- 'Limitless,' but it's not without some side effects...
Director Neil Burger (2006's 'The Illusionist') and writer Leslie Dixon (adapting Alan Glynn's novel, "The Dark Fields") work within a noir framework, starting with our super-smart hero finding himself standing on a ledge, wondering what he must've missed to find himself in this position. We then jump back in order to see him throttle forward from schlubiness to superstardom, and Burger's directorial approach at the start is primarily a kaleidoscopic one, with Jo Willems' cinematography lightening up and livening up every time Eddie pops another NZT.
The story starts out as 'Wall Street' on literal steroids, a pumped-up cautionary tale that sees Lindy returning to the newly motivated Eddie and the very powerful Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro) keeping tabs on him. Eddie claims that he doesn't have delusions of grandeur, but rather "an actual recipe" for it, and Carl wants to capitalize on that rather than compete with it. Of course, the supply starts to run short, thusly endangering Eddie's reputation, relationship and his very life.
That means Cooper has to prove convincingly pathetic, then motivated, then desperate to his audience, and he's ideally cast in his first major leading role as something of a modern-day Icarus, somewhat sympathetic (if not simply pitiable) and effortlessly cocky as he rises through the ranks. The film's use of narration to spell out his state of mind at any given time becomes a bit of a crutch, but it also helps to have Cooper lighten the mood as the stakes get grim.
Cornish's love interest is rightfully fed up at first, only to find herself tempted by the allure of first a brand new Eddie and then the drug itself, and De Niro gives an admirably subdued yet sharp performance, striking the right note of menace while leaving the scenery unchewed (making his eventual relish in delivering one particularly threatening speech all the more satisfying). Andrew Howard initially turns up as Generic Russian Thug, but the plot takes his performance to a more interesting, amusing place, while the remarkably cute Anna Friel ('Land of the Lost') delivers a nicely scruffy turn as Eddie's estranged ex-wife.
'Limitless' eventually comes to close on a somewhat disingenuous note that reeks of re-shoots and/or test screening reactions, betraying the film's hyper-noir attitude up until that point. More often than not, though, it's a quicksilver thriller that gives familiar conventions a fresh spin, generating its own high from seeing everything else crash down around one man who just wanted better living through pharmaceuticals.