By Patrick Z. McGavin

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Neil Burger’s fourth feature, “Limitless,” invokes an altered state, a tripwire of possibility and wonder about a tormented man who takes a radical plunge down a very perverse kind of rabbit hole.

Writer Leslie Dixon has adapted the 2001 novel by British writer Alan Glynn, whose title, “The Dark Fields,” referenced a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” This interesting variant of the Faust tale entwines a gilded aura and social élan to the tense and uncertain present.

Made explicit by the flashback-driven structure, “Limitless” is pitched as a cautionary tale about the belief that anything so easily acquired is itself ephemeral and certainly not to be trusted.

The filmmakers try to have it both ways, luxuriating in the glorious carnal possibilities and sensual pleasures of a mysterious wonder drug, while also warning of the delirious and potentially nasty blowback.

Burger is a very nimble and adept director—he is an interesting, unorthodox choice for the film. From his impressive low-budget debut “Interview with the Assassin,” through his subsequent features “The Illusion” and “The Lucky Ones,” an attitude, verve and a stylishly subversive undercurrent color all of his movies.

That proves particularly fruitful here, given that “Limitless” is largely about personal schisms and contradictions. The narrator and protagonist, Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper), reveals as much by announcing his startling trajectory, from a spectacularly failed artist all the way to a titan of finance.

First glimpsed disheveled and broken down, Eddie wryly notes how someone falls so hard without the destabilizing influence of drugs or alcohol: “I’m a writer.” But at the start, he is a torturously blocked writer, one who has failed to compose a single word for his book contract.

Things go from bad to worse after his long-suffering girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish), a hot literary editor on the make, finally gives up on all of his failed promise. Eddie lives in a low rent East Village walk up, and he appears now completely drained of any hope or excitement.

Eddie’s dire personal and professional circumstances are dramatically altered by his discovery of a pharmaceutical elixir. After a chance encounter on the street with Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), his former brother-in-law, Eddie learns about NZT, a decidedly black-market designer drug that according to Vernon costs $800 a tablet. Taking pity on Eddie’s down-and-out condition, Vernon gives him a single free sample.

Submitting to his curiosity and ingesting the mysterious pill, the combative and dismissive Eddie is suddenly turned into a true believer. Explained by Vernon, the drug unleashes the brain’s full cognitive, creative and intellectual power. Under the drug’s influence, Eddie quickly becomes a master of his own universe—he now lucid, articulate and supremely focused.

His mind sharp and unencumbered, Eddie finds himself suddenly demonically gifted and capable of startling psychological observations about people, events, or social dynamics in a bravura manner he could have only previously dreamed about. He talks his way out of an awkward situation with his landlord’s wife, which is the first of many occasions he learns of the strong sexual benefits derived from the drug.

Naturally, the heightened state of being is not permanent; it lasts about twenty hours. Returning to his source, Eddie discovers first-hand the malevolent consequences of the drug’s intoxicating effects, and Vernon becomes its first significant victim. Uncovering Vernon’s supply, Eddie crosses the next divide. Whatever moral concerns he holds are easily cancelled out.

The drug enables Eddie to synthesize vast amounts of data, math algorithms, abstract scientific theories and fluency in foreign languages that he skillfully applies to everyday usage. Eddie becomes a piano virtuoso in three days, and then completes his novel in four.

The drug also accentuates Eddie’s own ambition and grandeur.  He quickly realizes his newfound power is particularly well suited in taking advantage of the financial services industry. He also achieves a rapprochement with Lindy.

The Faustian nature of Eddie’s devilish rise becomes apparent soon enough. Contrasting devils emerge in the forms of Carl (a very effective Robert De Niro), a viper-like energy mogul who enlists Eddie’s insight to help negotiate a business merger with a rival and Gennady (Andrew Howard), a Russian mobster Eddie rather foolishly involves to supply the necessary seed money to launch his own financial empire.

Working with the talented cinematographer Jo Willems, Burger is a gifted imagist who boldly uses color eruptions to signify the abrupt changes in Eddie’s state under the pull of NZT. In the propulsive opening hour, Burger entices with his voluptuously shaped imagery predicated on instruments of movement, power and (clearly virility), the exterior of a private jet, the interior of a fast luxury car, the rock formations of a cliff that Eddie naturally dives from.

Burger is tied into the ecstatic, giving shape and focus to Eddie’s adrenalized state to capture what Kierkegaard, in writing about anxiety, called “the dizziness of freedom.”

This leads to the movie’ most sensational visual sequence, where Eddie, under the complete thrall of the drug, experiences a kaleidoscopic series of events and incidents, moving from the tense and violent to the sexy and sinister. The hallucinatory movements are fractured into individuated actions that unfold over one dizzying eighteen-hour sequence at different parts of the city.
The virtuoso sequence initiates Eddie’s (and the movie’s) reckoning. The film works (probably better than it has the right to), because of Bradley Cooper’s low-key and appealingly ruffian charm. His lanky ease and sharp torment help elide over a script loaded down with too much plot as the darker corollary of the drug’s use, the blackouts, anxiety, paranoia and physical breakdown, clot the narrative.

However, Abbie Cornish, a very gifted actress, is unfortunately badly underutilized as well.

Burger is not always engaged by some of the genre requirements of the thriller, and Eddie’s implication in a possibly murder investigation seems especially murky. His subversive flair is revealed at the end, enlivening an apparently familiar climax with a sharp and suggestive coda (not to mention, the appearance of De Niro at a New York political campaign evokes Scorsese’s great “Taxi Driver”).

The movie goes a little too far, especially in some of the violence directed at innocents. But when it stops trying to play both sides against the middle, “Limitless” is an entertainingly shrewd and often preposterously canny portrait of the here and now.