In a future obsessed with pill popping and designer drugs, think of the possibilities. Imagine if you could “learn” to fly a plane by swallowing a capsule. Imagine “reading” Dickens by taking a tablet. Want to speak fluent Spanish? Easy. Gulp down a couple of Spanadol and wait 2-3 hours.

Adapted from a novel by Alan Glynn, director Neil Burger’s Limitless treads along similar thought lines and imagines what life would be like if a designer drug were available that could unlock the human mind’s full potential. One pill and you can see all the angles, make all the right decisions, store and recall every shred of information, speak as if you were reading from a perfectly written auto cue.

The local dope dealer doesn’t stock it and the cost is obscenely expensive. But given how wide the drug swings open the doors of perception (Aldous Huxley, eat your heart out) practically any human achievement can be mounted: financial success, spectacular sex life, a career in politics…

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a ratty looking down-on-his-luck nobody unproductively tapping away at a novel nobody expects will see the light of day. Eddie’s also been dumped by his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) which establishes him, if we didn’t get it already, as a capital L Loser — until the day he bumps into an old friend who takes him out for a bevvie and offers him a gift: a revolutionary pharmaceutical drug called NZT.

Things start going great for Eddie, but naturally there are side effects. They come in the form of physical illness and black spots in his memory. This is where the film flirts with the idea of treading a predictable route into the realms of a psychological thriller or a “drugs are bad, mmm k” lesson in Doing The Right Thing, not taking shortcuts, working hard to achieve your dreams, etcetera. The writing on the wall – and conventional Hollywood wisdom — suggests Glynn will opt for one of them. It is a magnificent surprise that Limitless chooses neither and morphs into something much more complex, harder to define and devilishly unconventional.

An oddly flat voice over narration track seems to have been tacked on late in the editing process, and on occasions Glynn over simplifies the way the story is visualised. When Eddie is penniless and exhausted his hair is shabby, Bradley Cooper’s acting overtly downtrodden and his figure caked in greys and dull tones. When he starts poppin’ pills the hair turns slick, his eyes glow bright blue and a golden hue surrounds him, touches which give the film a splash of graphic novel aesthetic.

Bradley Cooper mixes cocky and weedy convincingly and it’s good see Robert DeNiro freed from the clutches of crappy comedy in a small role as a corporate big wig. Abbie Cornish makes do with what she has in a lightweight supporting role as Eddie’s good natured and mild-mannered partner.

You’ll never guess where this rollicking druggy SCI-FI drama will go, and these days unpredictable stories from Hollywood are rare finds, the cinematic four leaf clover. When the final credits roll audiences are presented with a rare question: what have we just watched? And what to make of it? The film’s deliciously amoral anti-Hollywood twist ending is a ripper.

Limitless’s Australian theatrical release date: March 17, 2010.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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