dir: Neil Burger
My memory still works fairly well, even at my tender age. It’s not eidetic (photographic), but it’s not porous or sieve-like either, especially since I scaled back on the drinking after becoming a dad. Somewhat. Relatively.
I recall seeing, in some magazine, some kind of ad for something. See how great my memory is? In the ad, which was black and white, there was an image of a brain at the top of the page, and the fairly famous trope expressed as Einstein saying something about how humans only use ten percent of their brains, and imagine what potential we could unlock if we could get the rest of it working? Narrowing down the likely publications, it was either a science magazine like Omni, a comic book or Playboy.
I have remembered the diabolical claim all my life, since I was but a callow child when I first read it. I heard the concept repeated continuously throughout the 1980s, mostly by types of people with certainty about how they had psychic powers or some other supernatural / spiritual bullshit. I even remember a science teacher in school repeating the claim as truth. Honestly, I really should have gone to a better school.
Upon surviving, improbably, to adulthood, this idea had even less traction with me than ever before, sounding even more like ignorant wishful thinking. And once I read and understood the merest amount of neuroscience stuff, I knew it was a profoundly misguided myth propagated and repeated by idiots who didn’t have the least amount of idea how the human brain functions.
In this ‘brilliant’ flick, they repeat the deeply retarded claim, except now, because of inflation, they say 20 per cent instead. In the context of “imagine if we could activate the other 80 per cent of our brains”, the film posits a maguffin in the form of a tablet which can transform the most insecure and self-sabotaging shlub into a supergenius.
With a set up like that you’d think the flick would either be a sci-fi flick with thriller trappings, or a cautionary tale about drug dependency. It’s an allegory for… It’s a metaphor for… Actually, I’ve got no fucking idea what it is. It’s definitely not cautionary, I’ll tell you that much.
When our protagonist, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) takes the drug, he’s brilliant, capable of recalling anything and everything he’s ever seen or thought of, able to synthesise it all brilliantly into a working model of the world, and one which he can exploit and dominate at will. His brilliance is such that he can even predict what’s going to happen because he can calculate all the possible variables in a given situation. When its effects fade, he’s lost, stupid, dull, listless, unmotivated, and in a fair bit of pain. In the flick the drug he stumbles across is called NZT. But we already have a drug that simulates these experiences perfectly.
It’s called cocaine. You can be master of the universe for fifteen minutes at a time, twenty if you smoke it. Mix it with something of a propensity for bipolar, and you’ve got the exact same experience as the protagonist of this film. Except hopefully less people end up stabbed or with their hands cut off.
Eddie is a loser at the beginning of the flick. We know this because he has long hair, is mostly dishevelled, and drinks during the day. He claims he’s a writer, but the blank expanse of the unwritten page terrorises him. He mostly just talks about the stuff he intends to do one day, but we all know he never will.
Wait a second, this fucker’s starting to sound familiar… It’s like looking into a greasy, sweaty mirror.
A chance meeting with an old acquaintance changes his life completely and utterly, like those chance meetings always do in the movies. They’re rarely as awkward and unsatisfying as the ones I seem to experience. One pill of this NZT stuff ‘activates’ all those mythical unused parts of Eddie’s brain, and he becomes a star, a bright shining star. He gets a cool haircut, he dresses better, he makes money on the stock market, and he can now bang any chick no matter how much she might hate him.
But it’s all dependent on the drug, and getting more of the drug, and not being off the drug, because when he hasn’t got it, he’s as stupid as a Palin. Take your pick as to which member of that illustrious family.
Not only that, but the withdrawals are terrible. And yet his continued usage seems to be fucking him up just as bad, even worse. So I guess he exceeded his drug dealer’s scientifically derived recommended daily dosage, huh?
The visual effect they use works very well to get us into the head of someone undergoing a pretty strange experience. His eyes, too, on the drug, become preternaturally sharper, and brighter. The colours around him change depending on whether he’s peaking or troughing. And, man, those troughs encompass a world of hurt.
The trouble, as always, is that non-geniuses writing about supergeniuses invariably make their geniuses shmucks because they are either incapable of imagining something interesting/credible, or they have to have them do stupid shit in order to let the plot kick along. Do I buy that Eddie becomes a supergenius when he’s on the pill? Sure, that’s what the story says. Do I believe that the actions he takes are the actions of a supergenius, or that any of the other characters / antagonists commit genius actions when various situations require it?
Hell no. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a bunch of alleged geniuses do dumber shit since the last time some engineering geniuses thought “let’s build a nuclear reactor on a known earthquake-prone fault line”. Eddie is as smart or as dumb as circumstances require, but there are a lot of things that happen in this flick which put the lie to the concept that the effect this drug has really is that transformative, believable or dramatically credible.
Eddie is headhunted by some Warren Buffet type played by Robert De Niro. He’s lulled into a false sense of security because De Niro isn’t overacting, for once. This character, conveniently called Van Loon, warns Eddie that even if he’s a genius freak, he doesn’t have the decades of brutal experience that Van Loon possesses doing shit to get his way as a default setting. As such he’s essentially warning Eddie that his utility is fleeting. At the same time as this is occurring, with some looming megadeal on the table, Eddie loses his shit and his supply, and thinks he may have murdered some poor model during a blackout bender. At the same time, he, being the supergenius that he is, has involved himself with the Russian mafia, which every supergenius should do at least once in their short lifetimes.
The fact that none of the actions he takes during this time, on the drug or off it, make sense for anything other than plot-moving-along purposes, or for added jeopardy angles, and definitely are not the work of a brainiac Poindexter, diminishes anything you might have thought the flick was saying about drugs, or depending on a drug, any drug, for some desired outcome. Loose plot-threads are left loose, and two more relevant ones are resolved in such a lazy, convenient way that I thought the flick had become an absurdist comedy (I’m thinking of the resolution with the Russian and with the rival magnate’s henchman).
Whatever it might have being saying thematically disappears into the ether as they deliver an ending that’s not disappointing, but which doesn’t really coordinate with whatever the preceding flick might have been trying to say, and failing to do so at that.
Ultimately, what I’m saying is that the flick works only as a vehicle, when it’s moving, not in whatever it might have been trying to say. It succeeds action-wise, not thought-wise, and whilst it visually succeeds in telling many aspects of its limited story, the cowardice of the screenwriting comes through in pointless voiceover narration where the protagonist is explaining shit that’s happening onscreen that even the dumbest of non-supergeniuses would easily be able to figure out for themselves if they haven’t nodded off from their own drug use.
See, I used to think that drugs were bad, mkay? But now, through realising that I could be without limits, it comes down to the fact that the other drugs are bad, mkay, but if you find the right one, everything should be great.
A bunch of years ago, John Travolta was accused of delivering a stealth-manifesto for Scientology when he starred in Phenomenon, as a nobody who, through some plot device, actualises all his brain’s potential, learns languages in seconds, manifests super intelligence and virtual psychic powers. And yet even that film’s premise isn’t as disturbingly consequence-free as this one’s is.
So who’s pushing the wheelbarrow this time, and to what end?
Perhaps I’m overthinking it. Shocking, I know. Bradley Cooper I guess does a good enough job as the protagonist that I am forgiving far more than I should, really. In the bits where he’s supposed to be a loser, he still looks handsome and arrogant enough to be the kind of prick who tries to pick up your girlfriend in front of you, and probably succeeds. To say he is more credible in the arrogant genius part of the characterisation is an understatement. Abbie Cornish, who seems to be in every American flick coming out at the moment offers some minor support, and is good in a limited role. She gets to shine in an absurd sequence when she’s forced to take the drug in order to survive a dangerous situation, but at least she gets to do something more than complain.
I recommend it only tentatively, with caveats a mile long and reservations so vast they deserve their own casinos. But I didn’t hate it. It does possess a strange charm.
7 times better living through modern chemistry hasn’t had this vocal a booster in decades out of 10
“It turns out my capacity for self-sabotage wasn’t infinite after all” – Limitless.