Bradley Cooper enjoys playing jerks. Whether it's the arrogant boyfriend in "Wedding Crashers" or the condescending buddy in "The Hangover," Cooper has gotten a lot of mileage out of roles that capitalize on his smug grin and his frat-guy, rich-boy looks: His characters know that they're better than you, and they like flaunting their superiority. Eddie Morra, the main character of "Limitless," eventually becomes another of these Cooper types, but this may be the first film in which he's actually shown enough range not to make me wonder if he's just playing himself.
Based on the novel "The Dark Fields" by Alan Glynn, "Limitless" is, on one level, a pretty predictable rise-and-fall story. Eddie is a miserable unsuccessful author living in New York City who's about to get thrown out of his place because he's broke. (Just how bleak are things for him? His long-suffering girlfriend, played by Abbie Cornish, just left him, thereby signaling that the character really is in a bad way.)
Through a random encounter with his former brother-in-law, Eddie gets access to NZT, an experimental new pill that helps users utilize the full power of their brain. Instantly, Eddie acquires a higher level of mental clarity, able to learn languages and difficult concepts instantly while also churning out an accomplished novel in no time. But after his brother-in-law is murdered, he becomes convinced he's being hunted as well by the mysterious individuals who made the drug.
An unusual combination of "Pi," "Wall Street," "The Nutty Professor" and a David Mamet puzzle movie, "Limitless" seems less interested in the ethical implications of its story's super-pill concept than it is delivering a twisty paranoid thriller that slowly ratchets up the dangers for Eddie. Consequently, you could argue that the film, directed by Neil Burger ("The Illusionist"), never reaches its full potential, the sort of thing you'd think the filmmakers would be concerned about considering their movie is all about a drug that helps you hit on all cylinders. But despite its overheated style and attempts at being "edgy" -- this is one of those films where the main character delivers his voiceover in a knowing, smart-ass way -- "Limitless" succeeds on its own modest, B-movie terms.
A lot of this has to do with Cooper, who as Eddie transitions from a sad-sack loser to an ultra-cocky Master of the Universe who becomes the irreplaceable right hand man of a powerful mogul (played by Robert De Niro as if he's not entirely bored, a rare feat from the once-great actor these days). Even in something like last year's "A-Team," Cooper was doing a shtick more than a character, but here he manages to show how Eddie's arrogance is in part a self-conscious reaction to the horrible failure he used to be, making his desperation to find more of the drug compelling. Plus, as Cooper has demonstrated in the past, he's perfect at portraying soulless, rich weasels, which gives "Limitless" a nice ambiguity in terms of its rooting interest: We don't want Eddie to get whacked necessarily, but Burger never quite lets us forget that, really, the guy's got it coming.
It's a good thing Cooper's so solid as the lead because "Limitless" as a whole is more of a mess. Plot points involving corporate conspiracies and criminal lowlifes start to pile up along the way, especially as Eddie starts to learn the full truth about where these magical pills originated. And you also have to contend with the fairly unsurprising troubles that come Eddie's way once he encounters the harmful side effects of his addiction to the drug. But on the whole, the film's gritty, playfully amoral spirit helps paper over the story's occasional clunkiness. Ironically, "Limitless" will work best if you shut off your brain and just enjoy its cheap thrills.