Limitless (2011)

*. Several years ago there was a poll done of younger athletes who were asked if they would take steroids to become the very best in the world at their sport, with the catch being that they would die in ten years. I can’t remember the exact results, but a lot of them said they would go on the juice.
*. Limitless taps into this success-at-any-cost mythology, as well as the idea that a little pill can fix pretty much everything that’s wrong with you. Obesity. Depression. A life that’s going nowhere. Whatever.
*. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is one such fellow in need of a fix. He’s a writer who can’t write. His girlfriend has just dumped him. He’s basically one small step above living on the street. Then he gets a taste of NZT-48 and it turns his life around. He can now utilize all of his cerebral capacity. He even finds that he knows kung-fu, just by accessing memories of clips from old Bruce Lee movies and self-defence infomercials.
*. This being America, he puts his newfound powers to use on Wall Street, becoming an investment wizard by seeing patterns in the market no one else can. He gets his girlfriend back, but now villains are after him, looking to either share in his competitive advantage or shut him down completely.
*. What I didn’t like about Limitless, a fun movie that despite doing good box office flew under most radars when it came out, is that it validates the myth of the good drug. There’s a point right near the end where it looks like it might not go this route, where it might wind things up in the manner of a John Frankenheimer film and leave Eddie as the unwitting pawn in a game played for higher stakes by hedge funds and big pharma. That’s where I thought things were headed.

*. But no. God comes not from a machine but from a happy pill. Sure there are some negative side effects, including death. But, you see, that’s only what happens to losers. And if you kill some model chick on your way to the top, just hire a good lawyer and you should be OK.
*. The novel the movie is based on — The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn — is darker. At the end, Eddie is revealed to have been a guinea pig and dies in a motel while watching the president, who is also on the wonder drug, declare war on Mexico.
*. If you follow the story arc as I outlined it you might find it reminds you of something. It’s basically the Marvel superhero narrative: average Joe is given super powers in some kind of accident, and then faces off against a mysterious villain probably out for global domination while his girlfriend tries to understand what’s happened to him.
*. Not surprisingly, a similar premise about a boost in “cerebral capacity” is also behind the superhero film Lucy. The name of the drug is different, and its effects are even more spectacular in Lucy’s case, but it’s basically the same story.
*. This bothers me. Lucy bothers me too, but for slightly different reasons. In that film, as in Transcendence, tech is the drug that will have the power to transform us into networked divinities. That’s a dangerous message, but not quite as deluded as the idea presented here: the aforementioned myth of the pill that can fix everything in our lives. If you want to be the best at something, go ahead and take drugs, or amphetamines, or whatever you need to better your mental or physical performance. Sure there will be risks, but the upside is worth it. That we have bought into this myth so fully is attested by the poll of athletes I mentioned, or the fact(?) mentioned by director Neil Burger on the DVD commentary that 25% of college students are on Ritalin or Adderall.

*. So I didn’t like the happy ending. It’s like a movie about a gambling addict who suddenly imagines he has a new can’t-miss program that he stakes his last dime on and . . . it works! So might it not work for you?
*. Burger says he was attracted to the script because he saw “a Faustian story” in it about a deal with the devil. But it’s not, really, because in this case the devil never collects. And so if the questions the movie asks are How far will you go to attain success and power, and Will it be worth it, the movie answers with an unqualified “Yes” and “All the way!” For some reason Burger thought Limitless made these questions seem difficult.
*. Is there any ambiguity in the ending though? Is Lindy on the drug full-time now too? I think she is, but I’ll admit it isn’t clear and I’m probably in the minority in saying so.
*. I should also mention here that there is an alternate ending included with the DVD that is slightly less of an endorsement for better living through chemistry. Basically, Eddie turns Van Loon down but not because he has evolved to the point where he doesn’t need NZT-48 any more. Instead, he says he’s going to work hard to kick his habit. It’s a lame and transparent attempt to say the right thing, and they were wise to go with the ending they did, for all its disturbing implications.
*. Another angle that the movie passes on is the whole question of how we judge “genius,” especially when it takes such a unique form. There were a couple of times when I was watching Eddie’s high-IQ come crashing down that I thought the opportunity for a bit of Being There or Trading Places satire might be in order. Doesn’t happen.
*. It seems odd to me that killers can chase people through the crowded streets and parks of New York City in broad daylight so easily. I mean, what exactly was the Man in the Tan Coat going to do with Lindy if he took her down in the middle of the skating rink? Kill her and walk away? Knock her unconscious and kidnap her? What?

*. Roger Ebert: “The movie sidesteps the problem that what we need is more intelligence and a better ability to reason, not a better memory. For memory, modern man has Google.” An interesting point (though Eddie does seem to have more intelligence and “clarity” too). The thing is, there are quants who can write programs to see the patterns Eddie is after, and these programs can see those patterns and act on them faster.
*. On the commentary Burger does his best to sell the proposition that Eddie doesn’t want super mental powers just to get rich but for a higher purpose. This is, however, an idea that is left undeveloped. Apparently the higher purpose is going from being a NYC billionaire to becoming president (that is, attaining a position of ultimate power) so that he can then “shake up the free world and get things done.” So . . . he wants to be Donald Trump?
*. Leaving aside all the dicey propositions the movie is based on, I do think it’s quite well done. It moves very well, and if it doesn’t always make sense, or introduces sub-plots that don’t have any function, we soon forget. (I will admit, however, to being baffled by the severed hands in the box. It wasn’t until I heard the director’s commentary that I understood who they belonged to.) The effects used for the wired state are simple but efficient. Bradley Cooper makes a good Everyman. Robert De Niro is Louis Cypher gone to Wall Street and doesn’t look a bit out of place. In brief, it’s a good flick. As a public service announcement, however, it’s the pits.

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