The central plot follows Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), an uninspired writer living in New York City. Having grown disheveled and frustrated by his chronic writers block, he misses the deadline to turn in his new novel and his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) breaks up with him. The very same day he runs into his ex-wife's brother, Vernon Grant (Johnny Whitworth), on the street. Still a drug dealer, Vernon has come into possession of an unproven pharmaceutical drug (NZT-48) that drastically increases the brain's ability to focus, and allows the user to recall anything they have ever read, seen or heard. Eddie finds that he can finally reach his full potential and is able to accomplish anything. Surprised by the results of the pill, which endowed Eddie with a motivation previously lacking, he completes part of the novel, with quality results. Driven by the limitless potential for success he seeks out Vernon for more of the pills.
It becomes very clear that the trade of these drugs is illegal, a fact made shockingly evident to Eddie when he finds Vernon murdered, and his house turned upside down. Stumbling across his hidden stash, Eddie, quite stupidly, takes a large supply of pills and money from Vernon's apartment. He doesn't take into account the likelihood that the searching party will wonder what happened to the pills, and what he personally will do when his stash runs out. It wouldn't take a genius to find Eddie, whose rise to fame is made very public. Eddie turns to heavily using and transforms himself into a brilliant financial consultant for powerful Wall Street businessman Carl Von Loon (Robert De Niro). He finishes his novel in just four days, makes a quick fortune off the stock market and becomes a womanizing genius with the world at his feet. That is, until he starts experiencing the side effects of his addiction (mental restlessness and memory lapses) and becomes the target of powerful Wall Street moguls and ruthless Russian mobsters.
The film is certainly absorbing and fast-paced, not taking long to throw the protagonist into his often thrilling conundrum. We never really discover anything about his writing background, or why he is struggling to write. He is just a New Yorker struggling to live the American Dream. A little clear pill changed all that for him. Within minutes he is feeling the effects of the drug, and you wonder where the film will go, and just how far-fetched it will become. This high-concept idea is intriguing and interesting, but pretty poorly handled. He must choose between continuing to take the drug and risk permanent damage to the mental faculties upon withdrawal, or throw away the success he has built for himself whilst under it's life-altering influence. To demonstrate his various mind altering states, Neil Burger uses an assortment of Fish Eye zoom shots to document Eddie's memory lapses and time jolts. There is never a dull moment and the hyper-kinetic camerawork gives the overall atmosphere a surreality. In one particular sequence, Eddie has an eighteen hour blackout period, which is captured through a montage of him being blindly transported to different locations around town, without his awareness of how he got there. He ends up in a violent brawl, dancing in a seedy nightclub, and possibly linked to the murder of a socialite. His head starts throbbing, he regularly vomits, and his credibility as a consultant is questioned by Von Loon. While he is able to draw together ingenious concepts and successfully navigate complex data, his abilities also stretch to being able to recall and replicate Kung-fu fighting techniques, and the ability to learn a language with just seconds of exposure. It all seems a bit too much. Lots of wild ideas to fuel the concept, but nothing to explain some of the more glaring plot holes.
Bradley Cooper is a good looking and charismatic man, and well cast as the suave, ambitious, young broker. But can he be a convincing leading man? Many would not agree, and I don't think the film has enough substance to be able to draw any real range from his character. He starts out as a socially inept writer, who has an incredibly hot girlfriend he doesn't seem to deserve. There's a good looking man there somewhere, but his pale, pasty skin and long matted hair is used to distinguish him as a failing loser. As soon as he becomes successful, he has his hair cut, his eyes sparkle and the whole hue of the image is given a golden glow. The transformation is accentuated in the visuals, and this is where the film is the most impressive. The color contrast is altered to match his drug-infused existence. He not only manages to sleep with lots of women, who are impressed by his charming qualities, but he also begins seeing Lindy again.
While Cooper is solid in the leading role, proving to be a perfectly capable lead, none of the supports are given much to do. The talented Australian actress Abbie Cornish is quite good in the few scenes where she is involved, while Robert De Niro certainly gives one of his better recent performances. Thomas Arana is commonly cast in the role of a shady villain, and his work as The Man in the Tan Coat is fairly ridiculous. I wasn't sold on the narration either, which recounts the entire story from his climactic decision to jump from his penthouse. It does endow the film with moments of humor, and provides insight into his character that the actions of the film fail to reveal. While the film is centered on some very smart people, they do some pretty outrageous things, and the overall IQ of the film is pretty low. Solid performances, inventive camerawork and an intriguing premise make this watchable and absorbing, but it certainly has its own 'limitations'.
My Rating: 2 1/2 Stars (C-)