Under the influence of a black-market drug that frees the 80% of the human brain normally untapped, Bradley Cooper’s slovenly would-be writer in the tedious Limitless slams out a novel in four days. His editor finds it a bit “grandiose,” but her breathless stammering otherwise indicates that its narrative must tower over this having-it-all-ways, not-at-all-cautionary fable of Faustian self-improvement. Hooked up with the magic pill by his shady and obviously doomed ex-brother-in-law, Everyhunk Cooper reliably forgoes literary fame and cleans up real nice for a brass-ring life: The high-octane mental fuel enables him to seduce effortlessly, learn languages overnight, accumulate millions as a rookie Wall Street broker, become the favored oracle of a billionaire energy kingpin (the automaton Robert De Niro), and entice his disbelieving ex (Abbie Cornish) back into his bed by smugly crowing that his “capacity for self-sabotage” is dead. But, of course, the stash Cooper swiped from his murdered supplier dwindles, temporal and spatial “skips” in his consciousness evolve into a possibly murderous blackout, and headaches and vomiting presage an FDA-unsanctioned demise in the manner of the drug’s other addicts. (Consult your doctor if you see city sidewalks in unbroken, infinite-perspective effects shots, or experience rapidly edited, hallucinatory flashbacks in your roomy Chinatown walk-up.)
Pallidly aping the opening pre-climax and jaundiced first-person narration of David Fincher’s zeitgeisty black comedy Fight Club, Leslie Dixon’s screenplay instead displays a satirical aptitude on a par with her biggest hit, Mrs. Doubtfire. Cooper’s enhanced superman doesn’t struggle with his rocket ride to a condo-and-Caribbean lifestyle until sickness and menacing hoods threaten to crash it, and then he remains focused on how to live and salvage his goodies. Neil Burger’s direction utilizes an available-light, blue-gray palette for the slacker/antihero first act so he can roll out a golden, trippy glow once the brain candy and CGI kick in; the enhanced, iridescent blue of Cooper’s eyes outshine his panicky emoting. (Burger’s camera even does a 180-degree flip to give Cooper’s puking dazzle.)
De Niro’s oddly peripheral scenes constitute perhaps the most flavorless paycheck turn of his career, but the true pity is Cornish suffering the indignities of an empty girlfriend role including, in the scene when the movie drops off the cliff from irritating to imbecilic, her wielding of a juvenile Central Park skater as a weapon against a brute assassin. Limitless tries to limp into so-bad-it’s-funny territory when Cooper laps at a pool of drug-infused blood like a thirsty horse, but its stupidities are too leaden to pass as camp.