The old line that most humans only use 10 percent of their brains is, as Penn & Teller would say, bullshit. Whatever—it makes for a decent movie plot. Loosely based on Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields, Limitless stars Bradley Cooper as a slovenly writer who begins using 100 percent of his brain after coming across a sack of questionable pills. Named NZT—much catchier than the novel’s MDT-48—the drug induces mega-clarity, confidence, the ability to understand impenetrable information and the skill to summon up miscellany buried deep within one’s memory. (It also, amusingly, repeatedly serves as a storytelling cheat.) Cinematically speaking, it encourages normally staid director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) to try out eye-catching tricks, from slapping on the fish-eye lens to rendering drab palettes brilliantly bright. High on NZT, Cooper’s sadsack shears his ratty ’do, pounds out a dynamic novel in three days, makes friends with wealthy douches, then, still ravenous, sets his sights on Wall Street and beyond.
Of course, BCoop is essentially a junkie, so he must attend to matters of addiction, as well as outside threats, including a Russian ne’er-do-well (Andrew Howard) and a mysterious, surprisingly intimidating middle-aged man with a middle-aged man mullet. (Plus Robert DeNiro, who must be cast in a seemingly throw-away role as a businessman for some reason, right?) What’s missing, and what makes Limitless both weirdly refreshing and slightly vexing, is the lack of interior struggle. Apart from the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, Cooper’s superman must be the least conflicted human to ever gain superpowers. He never suffers ethical or moral quandaries; after his dealings drive away his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), the film doesn’t even stop for a post-breakup bout of depression. Limitless keeps moving through its wild narrative, which is its liability and greatest asset: Never slowing down means it fails to delve deeper into its subject, but it also makes for a piece of batshit fun cinema, no less because it’s genuinely, gleefully amoral. That Limitless, title be damned, winds up comfortable being shallow and unreflective means it’s not a great movie. But good will do.