Sometimes, you want to go a local boutique ice creamery, where the milk is thick and fresh, the chocolate sauce is melted down fresh from candy bars so expensive you'd be terrified to eat them plain, and the fruit toppings vibrate with the bright hues of a Technicolor musical; where something as straightforward as vanilla bean is rich and smooth to the point of obscenity and the velvet texture of the melted remains is so inviting and delicious that it would be ruder not to lick your bowl clean. The kind of place that's as much a spiritual pilgrimage as it a run of the mill soda fountain, where the ice cream isn't just a dessert but a tribute to a kindly universe.

Sometimes you want a McDonald's shake.

For those later moments, when you just want sugar and fat and you want it RIGHT NOW, we have movies like Limitless. Like a fast-food shake, the film tastes vaguely metallic and predominately of something approximating vanilla - that would be Bradley Cooper, one of the most aggressively bland of all the interchangeable white thirtysomething B-listers out there right now (a type exemplified by Ryan Reynolds, who can at least do some good character acting when he wants to). Thanks to pervasive digital intermediate, it's even got the "no way is that color a real color" neon glow of a Shamrock Shake. It's not just that Limitless is all empty calories; it's all empty calories that even as you're sucking it down, you can't help but feel that you're not actually enjoying the experience. But then without having any idea of how much you've eaten, you notice that scratchy "empty cup" noise and, what the hell, sometimes you've just gotta satisfy your cravings.

Adapted from a novel by Alan Glynn by Leslie Dixon (whose career, including Mrs. Doubtfire and Pay It Forward, is precisely as screamingly impersonal as it would have to be to result in Limitless), the film starts off on a whopping wrong foot: you know how supposedly, you can only use X% of your brain (the movie settles on 20%)? You know how that's actually a total canard mired in a wild misunderstanding of neurology? (You only need to use a small portion of your brain at any given time because you aren't eating, throwing sticks, fucking, running, calculating math problems, reading and writing poetry in a foreign language, having a conversation on the phone, and looking through a kaleidoscope all at the exact same instant). Well, Alan Glynn and Leslie Dixon don't know that, or more likely they don't care one way or another. Because in Limitless, Eddie Morra (Cooper) comes across an experimental pill that lets you access 100% of your brain all the time, which makes him a super-thinker who can write knee-wobblingly brilliant metaphorical novels and make huge sums of money on the internet and learn how to dress like he's not a hobo.

We can spot the filmmakers this dollop of willful ignorance; better to ignore the specifics of Limitless - since, generally speaking, the specifics of any given scene of the film hold up to very little scrutiny - and say that the movie is at heart a metaphor: what would happen if you could take a pill that would make you a better version of yourself? In Eddie's case, you'd become a Wall Street prodigy, making a huge amount of money as quickly as possible for nondescript reasons that have to do with a Plan To Better Everyone, thereby attracting the attention of infamous corporate mogul Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). You would also patch things up with your girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), a woman who appears sporadically and never has anything do with any other plot strand, shoehorned in apparently on the grounds that you need to have a romantic subplot in pictures like this one, even if it rather uncomfortably sits in opposition to the infinitely more believable, "Bradley Cooper's best self has lots of one-night stands with women that he manipulates using his razor-sharp knowledge of human psychology.

There's no getting around the fact that Limitless is something of a shaggy dog story. The plot is made up mostly of loose threads and barely fleshed-out ideas - the secret history of the drug, NZT, certainly seems like there ought to be more to it than we see: why don't the people who killed Eddie's drug-dealing ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth) ever come after him, for a start? and what's going on with the apparently dozens of other people who got strung out on the drug before Eddie? - and ends with a monstrous contrivance of a penultimate scene that that requires we not seriously think about anything that has gone before, violating every possible rule of its own internal logic pursuit of a happy ending. Of course, that's not a unique sin. WALLΒ·E does the same thing. Which I guess means that Limitless is almost as good as WALLΒ·E, except that Limitless has a sarcastic final line that does nothing but make me want to punch Bradley Cooper right in his goddamn douchebag face.

The conflict is murky; Van Loon isn't fleshed out enough to deserve the name "antagonist", though De Niro is at least more present than he was in Little Fockers. Even beyond that, the plot is very little other than "a man so brilliant that he can fail at nothing proceeds to fail at nothing". Which is not, if we're being honest, a tremendously interesting plot. Still, Limitless is ditzy fun in its own fashion, though that fashion ends up being nothing but lifestyle porn and a whole lot of jumpy tricks from director Neil Burger, who uses all the razzle-dazzle he can muster to keep you from noticing that his movie is about exactly nothing until after the credits have started to role. It gets going early, with an ambitious and ineffably stupid opening credits shot that consists of a huge CGI-stitched long take zooming through the streets of New York and into Eddie's brain cells and then back, with a very weird and almost indescribable visual effect where the middle ground seems to be moving faster than either the close-ups or the far distance; this technique, meant to express how the hopped-up superthinker sees the world, reappears a couple of times in the movie to lesser effect, but the spirit is there, at least.

There's also the obvious but not therefore ineffective use of heavy-handed color correction to signify the transition from Normal Eddie to Brilliant Eddie, in which greys and blues meld into warm yellows and, naturally, oranges and teals. Plus transitions that are unnecessarily flashy and say nothing other than "Neil Burger watched a lot of Michel Gondry music videos", but we thankfully do not yet live in a world where Michel Gondry's music videos are non-awesome. Limitless is not hardly that awesome, but it's shiny enough that it's a pleasant idle distraction rather than an annoying idle distraction; and even if it does nothing at all with its central question, that same question is fun enough to roll over as you're watching that the slow moments of the film aren't terribly hard to drift through. It's disreputable, trashy entertainment at best, but it goes down well with a Big Mac, and if that's what you are in the mood for, then that's what you're in the mood for, respectable or not.