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Film / Limitless

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Limitless is a 2011 American techno-thriller film directed by Neil Burger and starring Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish and Robert De Niro. It is based on the 2001 novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn with the screenplay by Leslie Dixon. The film was released in the United States and Canada on March 18, 2011, and in the United Kingdom on March 23, 2011.

Aspiring author Eddie Morra (Cooper) is suffering from chronic writer's block, but his life changes instantly when an old friend introduces him to NZT, a revolutionary new pharmaceutical that allows him to tap his full potential. With every synapse crackling, Eddie can recall everything he has ever read, seen or heard, learn any language in a day, comprehend complex equations and beguile anyone he meets as long as he keeps taking the untested drug.

Eddie soon takes Wall Street by storm, parlaying a small stake into millions. His accomplishments catch the eye of mega-mogul Carl Van Loon (De Niro),who invites him to help broker the largest merger in corporate history. But they also bring Eddie to the attention of people willing to do anything to get their hands on his stash of NZT. With his life in jeopardy and the drug's brutal side effects grinding him down, Eddie dodges mysterious stalkers, a vicious gangster and an intense police investigation as he attempts to hang on to his dwindling supply long enough to outwit his enemies.

In 2015, the film received a Sequel Series of the same name airing on CBS. Cooper reprised his role as Eddie in the pilot and some future episodes, but the series focuses on new characters Brian Finch and FBI agent Rebecca Harris. Tropes for the series go here. The character sheet for both the movie and the show is here.

This film provides examples of:

  • 90% of Your Brain: Eddie's ex-brother-in-law and initial dealer, Verne, outright says that "you only use 20% of your brain." Possible case of Unreliable Narrator since Verne's assurances to Eddie about the drug being FDA approved were BS.
  • Acquired Situational Narcissism: To have Super-Intelligence goes right to any consumer of NZT's head: Everyone becomes Drunk with Power, alienates his friends to be In with the In Crowd (only to discover that is Lonely at the Top), and becomes a Sharp-Dressed Man.
  • Adaptation Title Change: Limitless is an adaptation of a novel originally titled The Dark Fields.
  • Anti-Hero: Eddie, by virtue of being A Lighter Shade of Grey.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: The NZT-48 pills are the items that let the characters "cheat". In this case it gives them super acuity and mental capacity.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The scene where Eddie speaks Chinese to the waiter at the Chinese restaurant has been heavily criticized as the characters are just speaking gibberish.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: What happens when apparently anyone takes a NZT pill. In Eddie's case, he becomes able to connect information within his brain in a way far superior to simple recall. Any new piece of information is connected to the web of knowledge inside his mind, and because it's all connected, he's able to call up any piece of info at any time. Especially when something related to it pops up, making the information useful.
  • Being Watched: Eddie is stalked by a henchman who works for the previous owner of the NZT supply.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Despite coming up against someone he knows has NZT and being on NZT himself, the Russian makes the absolutely stunning mistake of not tying Eddie down or even checking him for weapons before torturing him. As if that isn't dumb enough, he even allows his goons to loudly crack a safe while doing it, ensuring that Eddie can kill him without them immediately noticing. One has to wonder if the Russian actually has some kind of mental disability before taking the drug, which only succeeds in making him slightly above average after.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with Eddie and Lindy in a restaurant.
  • Broken Aesop: NZT makes you superhumanly intelligent (so long as you continue using it.) The film appears to build towards several aesops about this, and then subverts them all. (Apparently drugs are good if you use them wisely.)
    • Eddie learns to his horror that NZT can cause severe illness and even death. The only survivor of withdrawal he finds is a complete burn-out. At one point he loses track of himself, gets into a streetfight, possibly murders a woman, and then later has amnesia about the whole experience. But by the end of the movie, he's found a way to be superintelligent with zero risks or side-effects.
    • Eddie gets involved with dangerous criminals so he can finance his schemes, somewhat similar to a drug addict getting involved with the wrong people. But by the end of the movie, he's solved that problem completely.
    • Carl gives a little speech about how Eddie can't really succeed on his own, because he doesn't have enough real-world experience. Turns out, Carl is wrong. Eddie doesn't need all that experience, because he's super-smart.
    • Eddie's girlfriend, Lindy, tells Eddie that he's a different person when he's on NZT. She breaks up with him. But by the end of the film, they're back together again, and Eddie is still wired on NZT (or something equivalent).
    • Eddie gives a small speech about how it's human nature to over-reach, and plenty of powerful empires have fallen because they over-extended themselves. But when Eddie himself aims to become rich and famous at super-speed, it actually works! At the end of the film he's a senator, and clearly on his way to the White House.
    • Carl takes control of the NZT supply, hoping to manipulate Eddie the way a drug dealer might manipulate an addict. But it turns out Eddie is 50 moves ahead of him and can't be manipulated.
      • However, in the alternate ending of the film, things are less upbeat. In this ending, it turns out Eddie is still on NZT and his stash isn't going to last forever, which makes Carl's ownership of the supply a lot more threatening in the future. It ends with Eddie telling himself he needs to find a way to get off the drug.
      • In the official sequel series it is revealed that not only does Eddie have access to an unlimited supply of NZT but also has a way to nullify its harmful aftereffects with a booster shot.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • In the opening sequence, Eddie is seen viewing a Bruce Lee flick. Later in the film, he would use the techniques in that film to defend himself from some punks.
    • It's established early on that Eddie can learn languages merely by listening to them being spoken. Near the finale, this skill comes rather in handy when he has to trick a blind Russian gangster into shoot his own friend.
  • The Chessmaster: The Russian develops into one by the last act.
  • Color Wash: Used deliberately when someone is on NZT. When someone is on NZT, the colours are vamped up and look more contrasting, showing their heightened self-awareness, whilst off NZT the colours are natural and dull.
  • Cunning Linguist: Eddie is able to pick up languages just by listening to them being spoken, and speaks excellent French and Italian (but atrocious Mandarin Chinese).
  • Deus ex Machina: The primary villain of the entire movie, Atwood's henchman, literally just hands Eddie back his stolen NZT stash at the end because it got stolen again by someone else and Eddie helps him track that person down. Which also happens offscreen in less than 5 seconds. That's how the primary plotline of the movie gets resolved.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Eddie's ex-wife is burned out on NZT, not crystal meth.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Played with. The movie shows the consequences of abusing the drug in very icky detail that sometimes enters Requiem for a Dream territory. But Eddie's much more capable and hyperintelligent when on said drugs, he's trying to quit them, which makes things worse, and it finally turns out he can remain super-smart without taking the drug at all or he used the intelligence boost to figure out how to make it himself while fixing the downsides. Could possibly be a Broken Aesop.
  • Dumbass No More: The premise of the film, though notably the guy who gets the full benefits of the drug is the one who was already an educated aspiring author; his similarly educated ex-wife is also notable for seemingly being the only character to recognize that the drug was too dangerous to keep using. The Russian loan-shark is the best example of someone who was actually a bit dumb, and noticeably while he is far smarter than he was before, he is still not comparable to Eddie, as one of his newest intelligence feats is discovering "this thing called Google."
  • Mr. Fanservice: Bradley Cooper as Eddie Morra.
  • Eye Scream: When Eddie sticks the needle in the eye of the Mafia thug.
  • Fantastic Drug: The Movie.
  • Fatal Flaw: Eddie's Pride makes him so overconfident in his genius he doesn't ask himself the question most of us are thinking when he first uses NZT: What happens when you run out?
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Done interestingly since the movie opens In Medias Res: Eddie jumping off the cliff into the sea foreshadows his apparent suicide jump that opens the movie.
    • After he takes NZT and before he decides to get rich, Eddie has a conversation about the rise and fall of the Portugese Empire: How some guys that nobody expected capable of anything take over the world for a few centuries, and as suddenly as they took charge, all his accomplishments vanish into nothing. As he puts it, "it's human nature to over-reach."
    • After Eddie delivers the first partial draft of his book to his literary agent, he returns home to his apartment, where you can clearly see the metal tin he uses to store most of the NZT stash liberated from Verne's apartment sitting in the foreground.
    • When Van Loon is introducing Eddie to Mr. Atwood, a point is made out of the fact that Atwood was nobody two years prior to the event of the film. Sure enough, he's on NZT just like Eddie, and his desperation to steal Eddie's supply is what drives most of the plot.
  • Flipping the Bird: The loanshark opens Eddie's safe to find severed hands flipping him off.
  • Genius Serum: This is the main plot in the film, where a normal guy is provided with Phlebotinum Pills that develop more brain cognition which makes the person who take the pills more intelligent. These pills makes this guy go to the top of the world, but there he has to struggle with more people who want the pills and trying to hang on with his few doses. The film was so successful that a Sequel Series was made later.
  • Good with Numbers: Eddie becomes great with numbers and pattern recognition which helps him make a killing in the stock market.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: The movie's moral outlook is openly cynical, with both the hero and his antagonists indulging in very shady business.
  • Grievous Harm with a Body: Eddie's girlfriend wards off her stalker by hitting him in the face with a small girl wearing ice skates.
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: Robert DeNiro's character lectures Eddie about how he lacks the experience to use his talent and genius to full effect. He's wrong.
  • How We Got Here: The opener of the movie is Eddie Morra standing on a high ledge, thinking back to everything that put him there.
  • Hyper-Awareness: This effect of the drug is portrayed visually as the characters see colors in a higher contrast, can scan and process environments quickly and can even see clearly at long range.
  • Idiot Ball: Eddie makes some dumb decisions for a guy with a four-digit IQ, though the pills do apparently give the user a feeling of invincibility. Which makes sense, as the pills increase your intelligence, but not your wisdom.
    • Eddie could have avoided a lot of problems if he had just paid the Russian loanshark back as soon as he had the money. Or just been a little more patient. He quadrupled his money in three days, all he need was another three days, and he would've had the 100K all on his own, without needing to pay loan shark-level interest or get involved in crime.
    • More fundamentally, before he even takes his second pill, he's aware A) that there are people willing to kill for these pills, and they might be aware of him, and B) that he has a limited supply of the pills, and no clue where to get more. Despite being a super-genius, he apparently doesn't even worry about these issues or how best to resolve them, until forced to. Driving a Maserati real fast is more important.
  • I Know Mortal Kombat: Eddie figures out how to fight by recalling Bruce Lee films and self-defence videos.
  • Important Haircut: When he's a slacker author at the start, Eddie wears his hair half-long and scruffy. When he starts taking NZT and becomes a genius playboy, he changes it to something a bit shorter and more obviously styled and fashionable. In the end, when he's running for Senate, he's changed it again to a short, conservative, businesslike style.
  • Improbably High I.Q.: Eddie describes himself as having a "four digit IQ," which is for all intents and purposes impossible. Granted it could've just have been a deliberate exaggeration to make the point that his IQ was too high to be measured.
  • Improvised Weapon: The movie involves fighting with syringes, pianos, and a little girl on ice skates.
  • In Medias Res: The film opens with Eddie in his apartment as the Russian and his thugs are about to break in, contemplating suicide by jumping.
  • Insecurity System: Eddie's "fortress" of a condo apparently doesn't even have an alarm.
  • Instant Expert: NZT-48 allows Eddie to develop expertise in just about any field (from Mandarin to economics) in a matter of hours.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Though his life goes through hell for a while, Eddie still gets away with removing evidence from the scene of a murder, sleeping with a married woman, cheating on his own girlfriend after they get back together and possibly murdering the girl he cheated with. (He can't remember if he did it, both Eddie and the audience never find out)
    • Also the mook who stalks Eddie for most of the film, threatens his girlfriend and murders two innocent people in broad daylight. But in the end, it was all out of loyalty to his dying boss and he helps Eddie get the NZT back, so all is forgiven.
  • A Lighter Shade of Grey: Eddie, despite evolving to be as crooked as his enemies are, still comes off as much more sympathetic.
  • Lonely at the Top: Trying to get rich, Eddie manages to alienate Lindy, the only person who truly cares about him, leaving him with the Corrupt Corporate Executive and the Mafiya.
    • Eddie's ex wife also dumped him while she was under the NZT's influence. Eddie would have not contacted her if not for his own problems with NZT.
  • The Mafiya: The loan shark is apparently from the Russian mob.
  • The Millstone: Eddie manages to ruin Van Loon's greatest business; he unwillingly hooks the Russian into NZT, his two bodyguards are killed, as well as two Heroic Bystanders. Lindy realizes Eddie cannot care about anything except NZT, so she abandons him as fast as she can.
  • Missing Time: Too much NZT-48 - more than one pill a day - seems to cause this.
  • Mood Lighting: The film's color palette changes noticeably from blue to orange while Eddie is on NZT.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: As is the protagonist, Eddie.
  • Omniglot: In his first month on the drug, Eddie was able to learn and fluently speak foreign languages, just by listen to them a few times. We see four (Italian, Russian, French and Mandarin), but there's probably more. Cooper's fluency in French is actually true.
  • Mushroom Samba: Subverted, mostly. The first time Eddie takes NZT, the use of more than one Dutch Angle, along with a second ("enhanced") Eddie coming up the stairs behind him, leads to a Camera Perspective Switch by way of a Fish-Eye Lens, capped off by Mood Lighting. This sequence gives the viewer a definite impression of a shift in consciousness/perspective while avoiding obvious hallucinations or unreality.
  • Ontological Inertia: Subverted because there is no time travel, but one of the themes of the movie is how, even with the Applied Phlebotinum NZT pills, things continue to be the same:
    • Lindy is a winner before she takes NZT, but after that, she doesn't become a loser. She doesn't want anything to do with the drug that made her cross the Moral Event Horizon.
    • Eddie seems to have been gone from Rags to Riches in very short time. But then the Corrupt Corporate Executive cut all his credit. He could have won millions if he had just waited, but NZT comes with limited time.
  • Orange/Blue Contrast: Used constantly in the movie as well as the poster.
  • Phlebotinum Overdose: Taking too much NZT can quickly kill the user.
  • Photographic Memory: Another benefit of NZT.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    "Thursday I need 20 pills."
    "Thursday you can go FUCK YOURSELF!"
  • Rags to Riches: Middle class Eddie Morra invokes this trope. Sadly, it takes much more time than he wants to spend on this goal, so he asks for a loan from The Mafiya and takes a credit from the Corrupt Corporate Executive. It got worse from there. See Writers Cannot Do Math for a deeper analysis.
  • Ransacked Room: Eddie's apartment gets ransacked and later also his hotel room. That is why he changed to a loft with a high security system. It didn't help him much though.
  • Reed Richards Is Useless: Instead of curing cancer or ending world hunger, most users apply their new smarts for money, political power, or just making their lives better. Justified with varying levels of With Great Power Comes Great Insanity as users like Eddie still make impulsive decisions which can be increased by the drugs giving feelings of invincibility. He does also figure out a way to keep NZT's properties without needing the drug, and even enhance them.
    • Eddie at least plans to subvert this. But most of the movie's plot centers around him trying to raise the insane amount of money he decides he will need to put his plan into motion and it's never revealed what that plan actually is beyond that (presumably running for Senate is one of the next steps).
    • Eddie also describes an effect of NZT as basically not being allowed to stop pushing for a more immediate form of self-challenging self-expression. This arguably means it would take a rare personality to stick to curing cancer or ending world hunger on NZT long enough to get results unless given reason to. In other words, Reed Richards might not be Useless if he wasn't his own boss.
  • Renaissance Man
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: A side effect of NZT is compulsive self improvement, such as getting a hair-cut, cleaning your apartment, working out and buying expensive outfits. When you're off of it, you fall apart.
  • Sherlock Scan: Eddie does this to just about everyone he meets after starting NZT.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The name of the book Eddie eventually writes is Illuminating the Dark Fields. The book on which this movie is based is The Dark Fields, by Alan Glynn.
    • The name of the writer on the law student's book is L. Dixon III, a reference to the film's screenwriter Leslie Dixon.
    • An aimless guy takes a pill and suddenly is a Superhero, gets into perilous adventures with a lot of Sharp Dressed Men. Where have I seen this movie? And it has the best Shout-Out ever.
      Eddie: [to his two Sharp Dressed Bodyguards] Oh, and please, donít use the same suit. This is not The Matrix.
  • Stealth Pun: In the third act Eddie is given a package labeled "Hand Delivery to Edward Mazzo". What does the package contain? The severed hands of his bodyguards.
  • Super-Intelligence: NZT grants all kinds, though it helps to be clever to start with.
  • Super Serum: NZT.
  • Super-Speed Reading: Melissa gained this ability while on NZT.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Although it's much milder than "the reason you suck", Van Loon gives Eddie one, explaining that while he has raw genius (thanks to NZT), he doesn't understand how it is to use hard work to make it to the top.
  • Title Drop: "A tablet a day, and what I could do with my day, was limitless."
  • Too Dumb to Live: The Russian, for hiring a bodyguard who is blind in one eye. Which Eddie of course takes advantage of in the final scene.
    • And as a reminder, the Russian is also on NZT.
    • Eddie could have avoided a lot of problems by paying back the Russian as soon as he could. Which was like 48 hours later.
  • Trailers Always Lie: the trailer implies that Carl Van Loon will be the Big Bad of the film, but he's really only a direct antagonist for the last 5 minutes of the movie or so. The Russian and Atwood's goon are bigger threats for much longer.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Eddie was quadrupling his money every day. He started off with 800 dollars the first day, got 2 grand the second and had 7.5 grand the third. He said that this was going "too slow" so he went to borrow $100,000 from a loan shark the next day. However, if he just kept doing what he was doing, he would have quadrupled his 7.5k and gotten 30k the next day and then 120k the day after that. He saved himself one day by taking out that loan. If he kept his head down the whole time and played the stocks by himself, he would have earned 120 million dollars in a week from the day he decided he needed to take out a loan, without actually needing to take the loan out. Apparently no one on the writing staff understands exponential growth.
    • More still, by the time Loan Shark comes after Eddie, he's already made at least a few millions, who could be used to pay the debt. However, the overdose effects and Atwood's henchman obviously distracted him from that trouble.
    • There is also the fact Eddie offhandedly mentions gambling and how easy card-counting and reading people became, yet it is never used for anything. He somehow never got the idea to apply that ability to get the money he needed - a relatively low sum, after all - just by playing cards. Even with low stakes game he could earn all the money he needed to "go big" in few hours.
  • Unrated Edition: Which restores the original ending that got dropped after test screenings.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Eddie vomits after finding out that the blonde woman he made out with has been murdered. He wonders if HE is the murderer.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The blonde woman who turned up dead, leading Eddie to wonder how much he was unable to recall from his experiences.