, the new Neil Burger film starring Bradley Cooper, offers style, but little substance. Itís as slick as olive oil on a linoleum floor, but when you clean up the oil, youíre left with just linoleum. The film looks great until you start thinking about it. For one thing, there is a lot of voice-over narration which means that for whatever reason, the screenplay and director couldnít adequately explain what was going on by relying on the actorsí dialogue and actions alone. A little exposition is helpful; too much is distracting and artificially clever. The story is told mostly in a flashback because the film opens with Cooperís character standing on the ledge of an incredibly tall building, poised to jump, as unknown baddies are cutting through the metal door with a blow torch. The suspense of how he got there is seductive, but itís not going to turn out the way you think it will.
Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a writer/slacker who has writerís block and canít meet deadlines for his book contract or for his rent. His girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) has left him in his trashed out apartment, so heís on his way home from a bar, semi-drunk at 2:00 in the afternoon, when he runs into his drug dealer ex brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth). Vernon sympathizes with Eddieís situation and offers the perfect solution: a new designer-drug pill, NZT, allows access to 100% of the brain instead of the 20% accessible to the average person. Vernon implies that itís being developed by a major pharmaceutical company and is FDA approved. Although Eddie doubts this, he takes the pill anyway, and low and behold, heís suddenly able to see and understand everything. Vernon, unfortunately, failed to mention the side effects or the fact that a number of unscrupulous, dangerous people are after it. Eddie goes back to Vernonís place to score some more, agrees to go on a couple of errands for Vernon, and when he returns, he finds the luckless Vernon dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The place is ransacked, so itís obvious that some bad people are in search of the clandestine drug. In hopes that they didnít find Vernonís stash, Eddie continues the search and finds a baggie full of pills, some cash, and a book containing the names and numbers of Vernonís clients. Eddie is riding high now, and begins taking the pill regularly. He finishes his book in 4 days, teaches himself to play the piano with virtuosity in a couple of days, masters every foreign language he hears in a matter of hours, and becomes a stock market expert who can triple his money in one day. Heís using dead Vernonís money when he decides he needs more capital to really score the big bucks, and this is his undoing.
At this point in the film, logic begins to fail. This drug that has made Eddie so smart certainly didnít give him any common sense. He goes to a sadistic Russian loan shark, Gennady (Andrew Howard), to borrow $100K and is naÔve enough to believe that Gennady, a master criminal, wonít find out about the drug and want a bigger piece of the pie. Meanwhile, Eddie is living the good life. Heís cleaned up nicely, gotten his girlfriend back, and become the whiz kid of Wall Street. He gets a meeting with the wealthiest power-broker on the Street, Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), whoís rarely impressed by anyone. Although Eddie came out of nowhere, Van Loon hires him and they begin putting together a merger that will make Eddie rich and Van Loon richer. Now for the bad news. Eddie is running low on NZT and begins to look for more. The withdrawal symptoms are extreme. Heís already experienced an eighteen-hour black-out, and begins to have headaches, vomiting, and extreme weakness. The artificially-induced intelligence also begins to wane. About that time, Eddie seeks out his ex-wife Melissa (Anna Friel) to find out more about Vernonís sources. The once beautiful, intelligent, and witty Melissa has become a broken shell of her former self due to, you guessed it, NZT. She warns Eddie that he must taper off slowly or he will die. Even then, heíll have the remnant effects of NZT that she has Ė no ability to focus for more than a few seconds, diminished awareness and ability to process information, and physical limitations like those caused by any major, debilitating illness. She has no knowledge about where Vernon got the drug, and Eddie is horrified. He begins calling the other ďclientsĒ in Vernonís little black book and learns that they are either dead or in intensive care. Gennady has finagled the drug from Eddie, wants more, and is in pursuit along with a couple of his thugs. Another mysterious client/procurer, who has already tried to kill Lindy, is also in pursuit. Eddie has hired a chemist to try to re-create NZT and has fortified himself in a fortress-like penthouse, but the wolves are at the door. That would be Gennady and his thugs from the opening scene.
Hereís my dilemma. Why wouldnít someone smart enough to learn fluent Chinese in a couple of hours not be able to master chemistry well enough to figure out how to make NZT? Although heís able to do everything else one could possibly imagine, apparently chemistry is not a skill set he gets from NZT. Seems a little inconsistent to me. Of course, if Eddie and the other clients had figured it out, there wouldnít be a story. Actually, there isnít much of one. Bradley Cooper does his best to be compelling, but thereís just something missing. Heís best when heís doing the slacker thing and then again later when heís having the withdrawal symptoms. Abbie Cornish has little to do in the girlfriend role, and Robert De Niro gives a lackluster performance at best. The ending doesnít fit the frenetic pace of the film. It feels as though the film-maker ran out of time and needed to wrap it up quickly. What we get is a nice, neat little package all tied up with a big bow. It feels very anti-climactic.