What if you could take a pill and it unlocked the vast potential of your mind? That’s what this film purposes. The problem is that writers not on the drug have a hard time representing what a person with a four digit IQ is really like. I highly doubt that someone that smart would end up in a thriller, but that’s what the film is.
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper, THE HANGOVER) is a struggling writer who has a book deal, but can’t really deal with writing it. Pretty much at rock bottom, he has a run in with his former brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth, EMPIRE RECORDS), who was also is former drug dealer. He’s now pushing NZT, the drug that unlocks your mind’s full potential. But as with any too good to be true venture, there are side effects. Eddie gets addicted to the drug and starts running out of his supply. In the process, he gets mixed up with gangster Gennady (Andrew Howard, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN) and high-stakes investor Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro, RAGING BULL). It’s questionable who is shadier.
On the drug, Eddie bangs out his novel in no time and seems to lose the desire to be a great writer afterward. He uses his new found gift to sleep with beautiful women and make money ruling the stock market. I type on a keyboard from time to time and I really doubt with unlimited brain power becoming the uber-Warren Buffett would be my top priority.
That’s part of the problem with the film. It needs to take Adderall for its ADD too. Cooper is excellent at playing the many versions of Eddie from the straggly haired loser to the alpha male lothario, but I’m not sure how these two people came from the same person. The story almost presents a Jekyll and Hyde story instead of CHARLY for the modern age. Cooper keeps us interested though with his lovable loser, cocky charm and good sense of comic timing when it’s all called for.
Director Neil Burger (THE ILLUSIONIST) brings to visual life Eddie’s experience on the drug. Words falling from the ceiling when he’s writing. A fish-eye lens to show his enhanced perspective. Strobe-like extended zooms to show his depth of vision. The hyper-real color palette. The style helps considerably to bring us into the world.
But the flare doesn’t cover up the holes in the story. It’s hard to say whether Alan Glynn’s novel or Leslie Dixon’s script is to blame, but the unfocused nature extends beyond Cooper’s character. There is a great deal of thriller elements in the plot that come from different places. It keeps us guessing but in a confusing way. Who is the real adversary here? Eddie himself, the gangsters, the businessmen? And which one of the latter two is the real baddie? Contrivances put the characters in danger and then those plotlines are casually sidestepped, especially Eddie’s black out on the drug, which result in possible murder charges.
The film certainly presents ideas, but none of them are developed that fully or interestingly. The idea of a struggling writer wanting to write the next great American novel that gets the smarts to do so, but then abandons those dreams for women and money, could be taken as a satire, but that’s putting too much thought into shallow pursuits. The smart drug is simply a gimmick to fuel a “mind-bending” thriller. There is entertainment to be had, but you have to shut your brain off for it.