Many times we hear of people (family, friends, co-workers, etc.) who aren’t living up to their potential.  That usually is code for suspicions that the person in question is either lazy or immature; and usually, those suspicions are correct.  Occasionally, there are those few who are neither immature nor lazy, just unable to find the pathway to apply their knowledge and experience to the goal they wish to achieve.  In this week’s movie, “Limitless,” the hero is provided a shortcut to his goal; but that shortcut is loaded with booby traps that could bring his dreams crashing down.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is running into obstacles as he tries to write his first novel.  His girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) has dumped him and he has a seemingly terminal case of writer’s block.  He stares at the blank screen of his laptop and nothing comes to him.  While walking on the street, Eddie bumps into his ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth).  After a brief chat where Eddie admits he’s getting nowhere with his book, Vernon offers Eddie a sample of a new drug, NZT, he claims is legal, safe and FDA approved.  Eddie is dubious since Vernon’s past involves drug dealing but, looking at his options, he decides to take the drug.  The effect is quick and profound:  Eddie is able to knock out a big chunk of his book in a few hours, as well as clean up his apartment and formulate a plan to apply his new brain power to a big, broader plan to improve the world.  The next morning, the pill has worn off and he’s back to his average self.  Eddie contacts Vernon for more NZT, which Vernon admits is not legal and probably not safe.  When Eddie gets to Vernon’s apartment, Vernon is dead and the apartment is trashed.  Eddie realizes that whoever killed Vernon was looking for the drug.  Eddie finds it hidden under a secret panel in the oven along with a wad of cash and a book of names and phone numbers.  Eddie takes it all and begins reinventing his life.  With NZT, Eddie finishes his book in a few days; he re-establishes his relationship with Lindy and begins playing the stock market with the money he took from Vernon’s apartment.  He soon turns a few hundred dollars into tens of thousands of dollars.  Needing more, Eddie approaches a Russian loan shark named Gennady (Andrew Howard) for $100,000 which he then transforms into millions in a very short period of time.  This sudden wealth attracts the attention of Carl Van Loon (Robert De Nero), a powerful Wall Street money man who wants Eddie to aid him in the merger of his companies with those owned by Hank Atwood (Richard Bekins), a recent power player in the financial world.  Eddie is taking the drug in higher and higher doses and soon begins to notice long stretches of time he can’t remember.  NZT has side effects that include the blackouts along with debilitating leg pain and nausea.  It may even cause death.  Eddie also has to deal with Gennady who experiences NZT when he steals a tablet from Eddie and a man in a tan coat following him with an unknown intent.

“Limitless” is both simple and complex, but isn’t as complex as its premise would lead you to believe.  That’s not really a criticism (from me, at least) as it makes the movie easy to follow.  It could have delved deeper into the implications of NZT on humanity, but then it probably would have indulged in a fair amount of navel gazing and not been the action/thriller it is now.  The movie makes Eddie relatable both in his unaltered state and when his intellect is supercharged on the drug.  He is of course more likable in his drugged version. 

The movie doesn’t really tread any new ground from a storytelling point of view.  Everyone wants to profit from Eddie’s new abilities and some people want to remove him from the equation if at all possible.  Greed and power will always be what motivates people in movies.  I suppose that’s a simple reflection on society as a whole.  As I write this, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi is blasting away at his own people as he struggles to keep a grip on power.  Hundreds of people gave Bernie Madoff billions of dollars to invest because of his promises of big returns.  Running for President of the United States is becoming a three year job.  The desire for power and wealth also seems to justify any means to attain it:  Eddie is willing to risk his health and life by taking an unknown drug.  Carl Van Loon doesn’t mind destroying a few careers and skirting a few laws to add some zeroes to his bank account.  Gennady is willing to torture and kill for his shot at the American Dream.  The audience must ask themselves what they would be willing to do.

Despite taking a familiar path with the story, the script keeps the action flowing at a smooth pace that keeps the audience from getting board with all the business talk.  The visual style of the movie is as much a star as the actors.  A shot early in the film that plummets down the side of a building may induce nausea in some audience members.  There are also zooming close-ups that seems to go for miles through city streets, stores, restaurants, construction zones, subway tunnels and the human brain.  Even colors are more vibrant.  All this is to give us an idea of what Eddie experiences while taking the drug which makes the movie exciting not only as the characters move through the story, but also as a visual experience.

How Eddie and others use the gifts NZT gives them is my only (and admittedly minor) complaint about the film.  Eddie uses the drug to make money which he intends on using for some unannounced plan.  The other people in the film who use NZT also apply their powers towards the financial world in one way or another.  Since the drug would allow Eddie to sail through med school in a few months, he could begin working on cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and the rest.  Wouldn’t that be a better use of his newfound intellect?  Perhaps I’m being a Pollyanna, but I would hope someone would put the well being of humanity ahead of their desire to get rich

“Limitless” is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving a drug, violence including disturbing images, sexuality and language.  The drug is one of the stars of the movie and is seen being taken numerous times.  There are a couple of fist fights, a couple of stabbings, a slashing, some shooting, the aftermath of a person shot in the head, a couple of severed hands and some other grossness that I’ll leave for you to see for yourself.  The sexuality is brief and not at all graphic.  Foul language is scattered widely through the movie.

The possibility of expanding one’s mental abilities with a pill has been a staple of science fiction stories practically since the genre began.  Most of us would probably risk the side effects if we could be smarter, richer and more interesting.  I know I would as long as I didn’t have to deal with people trying to kill me.

“Limitless” gets five guitars.

Four films are up for your consideration this week.  Vote on the next movie I see and review.

Cedar Rapids—A naïve small town insurance agent goes to an industry convention to try to save the jobs of his colleagues.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  Rodrick Rules—Greg Heffley is back with problems new and old, but none more prominent than the punishments of his older brother Rodrick.

Peep World—Four siblings come to terms with the publication of a novel that exposes the family's most intimate secrets.

Sucker Punch—A fantastical tale of a young girl, locked away inside a mental institution, who creates an imaginary world to plan her escape.

Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any movie currently in theatres.

Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.

Questions?  Send them to  Follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.