Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Sunday, August 21, 2011

One Pill Makes You Corporate: LIMITLESS (2011)

LIMITLESS, or AMERICAN PSYCHO-PHARMACOLOGICAL, is about that drug so popular amongst investment bankers, Adderall, disguised as a wonder pill that turns its taker into a super genius, based on the idea that we only use 10% of our brains, so what if we could use all of it? And have total recall of even the most mundane moments in memory? Such is the gift of the magic pill, which then our hero sleepy sad sack novelist Bradley Cooper gets hooked on and needs more of, and so do a lot of other (bad) people. The chase is on and the hangovers accrue, paranoia steps up, loose ends are tied behind people's backs, and sheer stupidity rears its head.

The problem here is that Bradley Cooper and the filmmakers are afraid to go full AMERICAN PSYCHO, so a hinted at black-out murder is just a plotline dropped in time for the big climax of battling the usual baldheads. So instead of some bitter downward spiral wherein Cooper -- who plays a self-absorbed novelist initially too stupid to take an offered pill from his ex-brother-in-law--goes insane, we have him become a Tom Cruise-style action star. Once he does make the grade, so far so good, but on his big day presenting his portfolio to Robert De Niro's power-talking tycoon, he decides now's the perfect time to not to take a pill, like a first class dumbass, so he's sick from withdrawal, and almost throws up on De Niro's thousand dollar loafers. Turns out he has a stash of pills at his girlfriend's house, but of course never dreams of getting it, because that would be too easy. Instead she (Abbie Cornish) has to get it, on her lunch hour, while he shivers like a crackhead in her office.

Trust me, no addict is that unprepared.

Don't doubt that I personally am similar and, as we say in AA, really ID'ed with Cooper's rise and fall. I myself was once a horribly blocked writer, tortured with longing, until my shrink put me on Effexor, and now I'm super-human on the keypad, writing so damn much my fingers fall off, smoking Camel Lights and guzzling diet coke and staying otherwise sober but always riding that low throbbing train of chemically-enhanced motivation and focus. Drugs have been overcoming writer's block since the dawn of recorded history, of course (those shamanic mushrooms), but that's not Bradley's problem. What sinks him and what is most unbelievable is that his girlfriend could be so dismayed that his newfound confidence isn't 'real' since it was boosted by a substance.

Listen lady, substances are the core of existence! We wouldn't even have civilization if not for coffee. We'd still be asleep, and cranky, in our thatched huts, hoping and dreaming that someone else will bring us some breakfast. But Cooper's refusal to remember he has pills around until it's time to try to take them to fight Russians is just not believable...

Imagine Popeye spending hours trying to open a can of spinach, his hands shaking, finally needing Olive to do it while he stammers through his teeth, an empty pipe in the corner of his clenched mouth. Not good. Popeye needs an open can ever at the ready, and so he has it. Has Bradley ever tried spinach? From a can? No, too cool for that; his spinach is fresh from Balducci's. All he needs is a little pill, and he's such a genius he can't even remember he's dead in the water without one.

I won't give away the ending, but I will tell you it's needlessly happy, a validation of Hollywood's fetish for solipsism's comely victims. What the story cries out for is a finale reflecting the terrifying loss of control and sanity that comes from tampering too long with your brain chem--as in AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000, top, bottom) which finds our 'hero' trapped in the vapid clutches of Reese Weatherspoon with no idea if he's been dreaming or actually living all his murders, and she'll never even stop talking about herself long enough to notice how much he loathes her. Instead of that kind of murky ambiguity, LIMITLESS bears out the creepy douche bag feeling I used to get hanging out on certain Upper East Side AA meetings listening to a certain class of rich snobs fawn over their sobriety like humility is the very latest Coach bag. Why doesn't our super-enlightened Bradley figure out a cure for AIDS, or how to levitate, or remote view, or make some draconian decision to wipe out half the population in a plague he's designed, carefully by hand, in order to make the world less crowded, ala LATHE OF HEAVEN? No, he drops his writerly pen and goes right for the long green. What a tool. And what a validation for Wall Street. If only Gandhi had possessed Cooper's level of enhanced confidence and brain power, imagine the great things he could have done with financial gains market share manipulation!

In the end, this drug just kind of turns you into Tom Cruise, and for the Los Angeles power worshippers, assertive narcissism and total fearless confidence is everything. I guess they figure New York is like that too. Here we love that trait like we love gangster movies, or mad scientists, or Hannibal Lecter, but you can't have your face and eat it too; you can't expect that Bradley alone is rising in the ranks in the realm of pill abuse. Where are all the others struggling for their smarty fix? In reality, pills like this come along all the time, but trouble is, everyone finds out about them and within a year taking it doesn't give you a leg up on the competition so much as barely keep you in the running, hence steroid testing is a kind of unilateral treaty.

Fact is, Cooper's character seems pretty stupid to begin with, but he loves his drugs and we're supposed to be in awe of him irregardless of Abbie Cornish's disappointment. If we come away from the film angry at our own sloth and trapped potential we should remember there's a reason we shuttered the upper rooms of our brain mansion: thar be monsters. Tread lightly, and bring a good therapist, or sponsor, or sword, or suffer the consequences. Unless, of course, you're Bradley Cooper, for not even the darkest demon can compete with the gravitic drag of such black hole vanity.


  1. I don't see the ending as happy. I see it as confirming that the reason I hated Cooper's character throughout the entire movie is indeed because he is an awful person and a tremendous sellout.

    No character development, no lessons learned, no one to root for. Just an empty shell of a film that initially showed promise.

  2. Thanks Kev! The ending wasn't happy for me, or you, but it was for the character, as he gets it all, without having to pay the consequences. It's a happy ending for a sleazebag Wall Street guy, the kind for whom Gordon Gecko is a saint.

  3. Haha... good point. I guess that's my problem, I like movies where I have someone to root for.

  4. Erich, I think LIMITLESS is misunderstood in the same way that you claim WICKER MAN (2006) and STRAW DOGS (1971) are misunderstood; we're not supposed to sympathize with the protagonist at all. The book he sells at the end is even called Illuminating the Dark Fields. I think the film takes the palatable hollywood formula and infuses it with twisted, ironic neo-conservative ideologies as a form of critique. Great essay though, as always.