You know how science says we can access only 20 percent of our brain? Well, Eddie Morra, the blocked writer Bradley Cooper plays with bracing humor and bruised heart in Limitless, ups his ante to 100 percent. And suddenly he's a writing machine, a linguist, a lady-killer, a wolf of Wall Street and a man possessed. All thanks to a jagged little pill called NZT. It's illegal, of course, and scarce even at $600 a pop. Push it close to OD level, and chunks of your memory go poof! Try to go cold turkey, and your head will threaten to explode. Limitless hits you like an adrenaline rush that will have you saying, "I'll have what he's having."
That's the thing about a popcorn thriller that really pops. You access way less than 20 percent of your brain and go with the hot, hedonistic flow. Cooper comes out swinging, spreading charm and sex appeal over the monster Eddie is becoming. And director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) matches his intensity. Working from the spiky script Leslie Dixon carved out of Alan Glynn's 2001 novel The Dark Fields, Burger rides this escapist fantasy hard and in high style. Robert De Niro, in an expensive haircut that doesn't quite hide a thug's smile, adds menace as Carl Van Loon (love the name), a corporate mogul who wants to know where Eddie is getting his mojo. And Abbie Cornish blends passion found and lost into one lovely package. Still, this is Cooper's show, and the Hangover star treats Eddie like a role to feast on, which he does with gusto. He catches all the drab self-loathing of a New York writer infamous for his failure to launch. The NZT provided by a friend who is promptly murdered is his ticket out, as long as his supply lasts. Enter the narcs, followed by higher forces eager to exploit the next big thing. The script sets up a witty premise that a few real-world cultural wunderkinds may have their own NZT. I never said you, Mark Zuckerberg.
OK, Limitless does have its limits. The plot hits some nasty speed bumps, and the ending is rote. But getting there is terrific, mind-bending fun. Watching Eddie flex his brain cells delivers a kick on par with Spider-Man testing his skills with small skips and jumps until he is leaping across rooftops. Take note: The pill isn't magic, it can only bring out the smarts you already possess. The real housewives of Nip/Tuck USA will still have a struggle. That makes Limitless a potent provocation for the Age of Adderall. It's a wet dream for anyone who's ever dreamed of getting an edge on the information highway. The worst side effect is that you won't believe a word of the damn thing in the morning. Fair exchange.