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Limitless Doesn't Break the Mold

<i>Limitless</i> Doesn't Break the Mold

DVD Release Date: July 19, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: March 18, 2011
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving a drug, violence including disturbing images, sexuality and language)
Genre: Thriller
Run Time: 105 min.
Director: Neil Burger
Actors: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish, Andrew Howard, Anna Friel, Johnny Whitworth

Part anti-drug message movie, part paranoid thriller and part star vehicle for Bradley Cooper (The Hangover), Limitless is only partly enjoyable. Its story leaves viewers mildly satisfied, but sensing that the film could have been better.

The fault lies more with the screenplay than the performances. Written by Leslie Dixon (Hairspray, Pay It Forward), Limitless is a cautionary tale about Eddie Morra (Cooper), a writer who can’t figure out how to begin the book he’s been contracted to author. His inability to focus is symptomatic of greater mental drift in his life; he’s let himself go physically and taken on the look of a vagrant. His shagginess and lack of effort aren’t sitting well with his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish, Bright Star), who leaves him. Eddie appears to be in danger of freefalling into a life of squalor.

That’s how we meet Eddie in the film’s first moments—on the ledge of a balcony, ready to jump. It’s Eddie himself who informs us, via voiceover, about the fix in which he finds himself: Through a chance encounter with his former brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth, 3:10 to Yuma), Eddie has conquered his writer’s block, thanks to NTZ, a drug that’s still in the testing phase. Vernon, a pharmaceutical rep, has a stash of NTZ, which allows people to use 100 percent of their mental capacity rather than the smaller percentage Vernon claims is commonly used.

It takes just one dose to turn Eddie’s world upside-down—for the better, at first. The book writes itself, but Eddie doesn’t stop there. He starts picking stocks, and his success catches the eye of corporate baron Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro, Little Fockers), who taps Eddie to help his company complete a major merger.

But the wonder drug has major side effects. As Eddie investigates, he learns that other users of the secret drug have died or been hospitalized. Plus, other people want a piece of Eddie’s stash, and they’re willing to do anything to ensure that Eddie keeps them supplied with NZT. Eddie has to devise ways to stay a step ahead of menacing thugs who want access to Eddie’s diminishing number of pills.

Limitless is, in part, a slick parable about the dangers of drug use: Once you try a little, you want more and more—until you lose control and your life unravels. The film moves at a brisk pace during its first half hour as it reveals the background to Eddie’s slow descent and turnaround courtesy of NTZ.

His meteoric rise into financial guru and Van Loon apprentice carries another familiar Hollywood message: Corporate biggies are merciless bad guys who deserve a comeuppance. De Niro, so good in last year’s Stone, has at least one great moment in Limitless, as he upbraids Eddie for daring to suggest he can play Van Loon’s game better than the veteran company leader can. Limitless might have been better had the introduction of De Niro’s character not occurred until well past 30 minutes into the story.

Paranoia and endangerment, with a few requisite chase scenes, characterize a third element to the film’s story, but the film never makes us care deeply about threats to Eddie. We know from the film’s first few minutes that Eddie’s story will be told mostly in flashback, until it circles back to that opening scene on the balcony. From there, Eddie’s fate is a question mark, but by then the story has spread itself a bit thin, lessening our investment in Eddie’s well-being. We don’t wish him ill, but he’s not particularly upstanding or a victim of circumstances beyond his control.

Limitless works best early, when it concentrates on Eddie’s drug-fueled professional and personal revival. We can see the excesses that will come back to haunt him. There’s nothing new to that arc, although Cooper’s performance—including his voiceover—draws us in quickly. If there’s a disappointing aspect to Eddie’s renaissance, it’s that director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) visualizes Eddie’s NZT-enhanced view of the world through tired devices such as yellow filters and a few distorted lenses. That makes it hard to believe, from what we see through Eddie’s eyes, that NZT taps into anything beyond the standard hallucinogenic powers of other drug trips visualized more potently in earlier films.

Also buckling under the weight of the story’s different emphases is Eddie’s romance with Lindy. She leaves him, then comes back later, after Eddie has become successful. She gets drawn into Eddie’s NZT dealing, apparently for the purpose of being placed in danger. In the film’s most preposterous scene, she fends off a knife-wielding man by swinging a small child at her pursuer. With that, she serves her character’s purpose.

As a launching pad for Bradley Cooper as a leading man, Limitless shows promise. Eddie’s character isn’t written in a way that makes us care deeply about him, but Cooper’s magnetism and appeal are undeniable. Future roles will tell the tale of whether Limitless was the launching pad for a successful career as a top-billed actor, but the film does confirm the comeback of De Niro, who, until Stone, hadn’t given many memorable performances in recent years.

Although Limitless has its limits as compelling storytelling, it also offers lessons about the downside of drug addiction and the price of short-term gains that come with long-term costs. Those lessons come wrapped in a PG-13-rated package that includes scenes of drug use, sexuality and violence. Read the “Cautions” section below for more details, and make sure you know your own limits before seeing Limitless.


  • Language/Profanity: “Oh, my God”; “a-s”; “holy s-it”; “sh-tty”; “Jesus”; the “f”-word; “p-ss”; “b-tch.”
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Eddie and Vernon go for a drink at 2 in the afternoon; Eddie steals Percocet; Eddie says he hasn’t had a cigarette for six hours; Vern drinks.
  • Sex/Nudity: Man on toilet; sex is heard more than once, but only feet and legs are shown; Lindy is shown in bed, in night clothes, talking to Eddie, who’s at the window; a woman takes Eddie to a room, kisses him and pulls him on to a bed; kissing.
  • Violence/Crime: Dead bodies lay on the floor; a man prepares to jump from a high ledge; vomiting; a dead man has a bullet wound in his head and blood on his face and chest; a thug threatens a grisly death for Eddie; Eddie fights off a gang of thugs; a woman is murdered; car accident; two men are stabbed and Lindy is stalked by a killer; severed hands shown, once with a middle finger extended; Eddie licks another man’s blood as it pools on the floor; a needle pushed into a man’s eye; TV set slammed into a man; gun shots; a man pushed through a large glass window; a man is bound and has mouth taped shut.
  • Religion/Morals: Reference to an earlier marriage; man said he walked out on his wife; Eddie and Lindy live together; a man says, “I was blind but now I see”; a reference to someone being “a prophet of our times” and “God.”


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