Eddie Morra looks like a guy down on his luck. It’s not that he’s living in a cardboard box or anything. I mean, in truth he’s even got a contract to write a book. But the tattered and scraggly would-be writer just can’t seem to wake up from the perpetual funk that sends him wandering the streets by day and prevents him from writing a single word by night.
Then, in a chance encounter, he runs across his drug-dealing former brother-in-law, Vernon.
Now, Vern isn’t necessarily a giving guy. But he knows the value of a free sample. So he offers Eddie a hit of a brand-new neural stimulant called NZT-48. It’s a small transparent pill that looks as innocuous as a drop of melted candle wax. But it’s much more.
Eddie’s told we only use about 20% of our brain’s actual potential. But this lump of clear wonder that he pops in his mouth is designed to instantaneously fire up all the receptors, synapses and pathways in the rest of it. And within moments the everyman shlump gets hit full-force with a whole new astonishing degree of roaring mental clarity.
Everything he casually encounters is instantly retained. Any memory or thought that’s ever dribbled into the recesses of his mind is at his beck and call. And when a stash of NZT falls in his lap, Eddie starts doing wondrous things: He writes his book in days. Becomes a virtuoso musician. Masters other languages without even trying. Begins making money hand over fist. And burns as the white-hot center of attention at every party he attends.
Of course even a white-hot genius is bound to run into trouble when you mix together Russian thugs, Wall Street bigwigs, desperate addicts and the inevitable side effects of a designer drug.
Eddie’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Lindy, is actually the most sincere character we meet. She truly loves Eddie and wants to be with him, but repeatedly realizes that it’s not possible. Lindy reaches out to help Eddie when he’s in trouble, but walks away when he refuses to pull back from the drugs.
Eddie’s ex-wife, Melissa, initially refuses to meet with him when he needs her. But she finally does in an effort to confront him with the dangers of the drug. (She took it for a while, and it almost killed her.) She begs him to free himself before it’s too late.
When Eddie starts making impressive gains on Wall Street, a newspaper columnist compares him to Houdini and God.
A pool scene features a number of bikini-clad women. We see both Vernon and Eddie bare-chested in different scenes. Eddie gets out of bed wearing only underwear.
When Eddie is high, he’s able to seduce just about any woman he comes in contact with. We see him kissing and fondling several in snapshot-like vignettes. We see similarly quick snippets of him having sex with three different women. (The camera shows isolated or intertwined arms and legs, and a bit of motion.) In once case, Eddie seduces his landlord’s wife. In another, a stranger he picks up at a club begins to take her dress off. He and Lindy kiss, and it’s implied that they resume their active sex life after getting back together.
Conversations include comments about sperm and condoms.
A Russian mobster threatens to slice Eddie at the waist and peel his skin up over his head. And while laying out an array of bladed instruments the man also suggests that he will slice out Eddie’s intestines and see if they stretch out to 20 feet like the medical books say.
In the midst of a struggle with the thugs, Eddie stabs one man in the chest with a large knife and spits a hypodermic needle into another’s eye. The stabbed man dies and bleeds out in a large pool of blood, and the blinded man proceeds to shoot wildly, killing a fellow mobster by mistake. Before it’s over, the man crashes through a large window, propelled to his death by a grand piano. Somebody else is shown with a bullet hole in his forehead, blood streaming down his face and chest. Eddie opens a package and discovers the severed hands of his two bodyguards inside.
Eddie is attacked by a group of men in the subway. In a protracted battle the drug helps him access memories of fighting films, which he uses to better batter and pummel his bloodied foes. (His only wounds are skinned knuckles.) A man chases a woman through the park and viciously stabs two passersby who step forward to protect her. She finally defends herself by slashing him with a little girl’s ice skate. (With the girl still wearing it.)
Eddie stands on the edge of a high-rise balcony as if to jump to his death. It’s reported on a news show that a woman has been murdered in a local hotel, and it appears that Eddie is the killer.
One f-word. Six or eight s-words. “A‑‑,” “h‑‑‑” and “b‑‑ch” are also exercised. God’s name is abused a couple of times. Jesus’ at least once. One of the severed hands is posed in such a way that it makes an obscene gesture.
The movie, of course, centers around Eddie repeatedly taking the make-believe drug NZT. We see him handling it and swallowing it in numerous scenes. Desperate for a fix at a climactic moment, he goes so far as to lap up the pooled blood of a dead gangster who had the drug in his system.
Various other characters take the drug as well, including Lindy (who is compelled to swallow a pill in order to think her way out of a life-threatening situation) and the Russian mob guy Gennady (who injects a liquefied version into his arm).
There are a few negative effects of the drug on display. Eddie suffers from blackouts and time gaps in his memory. We see him in a drawn, haggard withdrawal state. His ex-wife appears to be physically ill and frail some time after quitting it. And other users have reportedly grown sick or died because of it.
The cure? To keep taking it, apparently.
Percocet and other prescription drugs get mentions and screen time. Eddie smokes a cigarette and we see him drinking beer and glasses of alcohol with friends in several bar scenes. Eddie, Lindy and other diners drink wine with dinner. Vernon consumes a few glasses of alcohol.
A flashback memory of a drunken Eddie shows him vomiting on a former boss’s desk. In the present he vomits in the street.
There’s something appealing about Eddie Morra’s story and the way the creators of Limitless have slyly splashed it across the screen. The idea entertains, the characters ring true and the script reels us in with clever dialogue and a steady pace. In spite of the fact that his quest for mental brilliance results in him popping pills like some kind of reverse PEZ dispenser—and therefore make him vulnerable to the blackmailing, life-threatening tactics of high-finance corporate cowboys and street-level gangster lowlifes alike—we want to see poor Eddie prevail.
After all, we’ve all been raised in this modern era of uncannily effective pharmaceuticals. So it’s actually pretty easy to identify with Eddie’s choice. Would you take a tiny tablet and be a person capable of anything, or refrain and remain the mentally road-blocked chump you’ve always been?
Clearly, Limitless wants moviegoers to ask themselves that question. Eddie even comes right out with it point-blank in narration mode. And, obviously, the downsides—blackouts, sickness and death—should be enough to weight your answer in the right direction. But caution isn’t necessarily the angle that’s most vividly on display here. The film uses creative camera perspectives and imaginative cinematography to help illustrate Eddie’s brand-new self-awareness. And it all looks really, really cool. Appealing, as I said earlier.
Might one, the movie nudges us with the idea, effectively manage a drug-fueled life by expertly avoiding all the nasty social and moral pitfalls that a life of addiction might realistically produce? If handled with just the right finesse and purified with the proper mental acuity, might the payoff trump the risks?
It shouldn’t take 100% of your brainpower, then, to realize that in spite of the creative twists and the cinematic flourishes, Limitless plays out as something of a drug-glorifying fib. It’s the sort of nonsense that can only feel realistic in the self-deceiving recesses of an addict’s mind. Or, of course, in a Hollywood movie.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.