A popular myth claims that humans only use a small percentage of their brains to function, which has naturally led to speculation about geniuses using a higher percentage, or about the untapped power, psychic or otherwise, that would come from accessing the Funyuns-consuming inactive remainder of the brain. The slick new thriller Limitless doesn’t question the myth, but it seductively exploits the fantasy of greater knowledge, greater perception, and a greater ability to make bank and change the world. As mortal powers go, that’s nearly as appealing as invisibility or flying, and the pharmaceutical challenge of firing a few more synapses in the brain makes for oddly plausible science-fiction ridiculousness in the age of Prozac and Viagra. Director Neil Burger has shown a flair for conceptual gimmickry in films like Interview With The Assassin and The Illusionist, and Limitless’ highs are sustained and visually snappy, a David Fincher-esque vision of New York conquered. But the side effects are a little troubling.
Cast perfectly to type as the smugly handsome hero, Bradley Cooper stars as a 35-year-old deadbeat who can’t afford his fleabag New York apartment and labors over a science-fiction novel one deleted word at a time. By chance, he happens across his shady ex-brother-in-law, who offers him an experimental designer drug that vastly expands brain function. After one euphoric, spectacularly productive day, Cooper seeks out the rest of the stash, but complications arise from various parties who also want the drug, and from the drug itself, which offers terrible consequences for frequent use and withdrawal alike. Still, he makes the most of its benefits, using stock-market gains to draw the interest of ultra-rich corporate baron Robert De Niro.
There’s a moral to the story, of course, voiced by Cooper’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Abbie Cornish: Like a lot of drugs, legal or illegal, this one may enhance his abilities, but it also takes him away from himself. Happily, Limitless more or less drops the moral and indulges in the heady fantasy of being a pharmaceutically enhanced winner. Cooper acts like his own genie in a bottle, achieving instant wealth, writing a prize-worthy novel in a few days, and getting laid in the process. Working from Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields, Burger and screenwriter Leslie Dixon are so content with keeping him on the fast track that they lose any sense of moral depth or consequence. It’s a small victory for flash in its eternal war with substance, but in this case, the flash is enough.