We all, at some point in our lives, have had someone tell us that we weren't living up to our potential. And then there's the conventional wisdom that human beings only use about 10 percent of their brains.
So Neil Burger's Limitless offers an intriguing hypothetical: What if you could take a pill that allows you to utilize your entire brain?
And what if, after you used it, it kept wearing off? Is it possible to become addicted to being high-functioning? Hey -- is a car addicted to petroleum products?
The choice confronts Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), when the shlubby, would-be writer bumps into his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth). Ex-bro, it turns out, has been dabbling in outlaw pharmaceuticals -- specifically, a pill that allows you to maximize your brain function.
Eddie takes one and -- wham! As the old Who song goes, he can see for miles. He writes the novel he couldn't even start and finishes in four days. He learns foreign languages, the piano, the stock market -- and can remember everything he ever heard, read or saw.
One drawback: The drug, called NZT, wears off. And when he goes back to his brother-in-law, the fellow is dead. So Eddie makes off with a baggie full of the clear little pills.
At which point Limitless gets complicated. Eddie's being harassed by a Russian loan shark -- and when he gives him one of the pills, the guy keeps coming back for more. He's also being chased by the guys who killed his brother-in-law, who also want the pills. And he's discovering that he's losing chunks of time -- a side effect of the drug -- which endangers his biggest deal yet, with a Wall Street tycoon played with appropriate weight by Robert De Niro.
That's a lot for one movie to take on, but Burger manages to juggle the elements of Leslie Dixon's script with alacrity. The keys here are momentum and visual effects: the effects to let you see what Eddie is feeling (including a great telescoping zoom-lens shot that feels like the embodiment of vertigo), the momentum so you don't have too much time to think about what you're seeing.
Cooper is an engaging actor who handles both ends of the spectrum -- grubby loser, high-flying winner -- with a sense of humor. He understands just how pathetic this guy is and isn't afraid to make that haplessness funny; similarly, he lets us see just how superficial the fully aware version of Eddie is -- as though, in tapping into his own power, he only accesses the veneer. De Niro is imposing, though his character feels more like the threatening boss than a guy who can bring down Eddie's world with a snap of his fingers.
Limitless is a pure popcorn movie, one that raises intriguing questions, but mostly wants to takes us on a wild ride. Which it most entertainingly does.