Stupid is as stupid does

Limitless turns a potentially thoughtful premise into a scatterbrained action flick

by Syd M
March 26, 2011 11:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bradley Cooper in Limitless
Bradley Cooper in Limitless
Cognitive enhancement is the topic of much debate among transhumanists and philosophers. Transhumanists are for it: Just think, they say, of all the great things that we humans could do if only we were smarter and could think faster, had longer attention spans and better memories. We could save the world!

Or, the skeptics say, we might just destroy it that much faster. We haven’t done so well with the brains we have – we’re rapacious, greedy, selfish, violent – why think that thinking faster or longer or remembering more would be good? Sure, you’d never lose your car keys again, but would you necessarily think and reason better? Would you save the world, or just save yourself?

Some philosophers wonder if we’d still be ourselves if we were enhanced. Would You+ really still be You? Or does an artificial means of enhancing your brain result in an artificial You?

These are all interesting questions, and since we don’t have a magic mind-enhancing pill just yet, maybe it’s a good time to think about them, before the genie’s out of the bottle. But Limitless, about a schmo who takes a magic pill and finds fame and fortune, isn’t terribly interested in these questions. More accurately, the movie is slightly interested in them, but has a lot of other things on its mind, too, and a rather short attention span.

The schmo is Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), a supposed novelist struggling with writers’ block. He’s stuck on the first word of the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first chapter of his book. (Hey, it happens.) He’s unkempt. His apartment is a hovel. He needs a haircut. His girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) understandably dumps him, and reminds him (for the sake of moving the plot along) that he was married once, and that didn’t work out either.

Minutes later, enter Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), brother of Eddie’s ex-wife, a drug dealer who just happens to have an interesting new product called NZT. He offers Eddie a free sample, to help with the writers’ block. Vernon reminds Eddie that humans only access 20 percent of their brains; NZT, he claims, will let Eddie access his entire brain. (Actually, the myth is usually that we only use ten percent of our brains, and it isn’t true – so you’re either worse off than you hoped or brainier than you thought.) It is worth remembering, at this juncture, what Eddie has done with his brain so far, which is nothing much. Now imagine him doing all that with his entire brain.

But NZT turns out to be a real-deal brain-booster: Eddie finishes his book in a few days, tidies his apartment, gets a haircut, learns some foreign languages, improves his vocabulary and masters the intricacies of stock trading. Lindy is impressed and takes him back. Vernon, however, is no longer around – he is cognitively terminated, so to speak, which is an unfortunate side effect of the illicit drug trade – so Eddie has a limited supply of NZT, and apparently there are other people who want to get their hands on it. Meanwhile, Eddie has borrowed some money from a Russian loan shark (Andrew Howard), who took one of Eddie’s pills, and likes the results. Eddie moves on to another career, consulting for tycoon Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro) on a big corporate merger.

If your head is spinning at this point, it’s not because you need cognitive enhancement: Limitless has too many subplots, too many mysterious thugs, too many red herrings. Cognitively enhanced Eddie gets into more trouble many times faster than he did before NZT. And with all the murders and the armed goons chasing him and the drug’s side effects and the worse effects of withdrawal, he never gets around to saving the world.

Remember that novel he was working on? Apparently he’s forgotten it, since that little plotline disappears from the movie, although several more take its place. He’s good at fighting though, because with his super-duper memory, he can instantly access all the kung fu movies he watched as a kid. Since Limitless eventually turns into the kind of movie where Eddie needs such skills, you can see that it’s not nearly as smart or thoughtful a film as it could have been.

Limitless is based on Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields, adapted by Leslie Dixon, and directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist). The film could have profited from a little more focus and attention. It pays lip service to the interesting identity questions prompted by cognitive enhancement, but it is too busy piling on predicaments and puzzles to do more than mention them. Burger adds some nice visual flourishes – rapid zooms that travel for miles through Manhattan streets, a shower of falling letters, digits that flip on Eddie’s ceiling – all to show how enhanced Eddie sees the world fall into orderly, tidy, manipulable place.

The catch – and this is the movie’s skeptical thesis – is that Eddie doesn’t do very much with his newfound powers, and what he does do isn’t good for him or anyone else. He gets rich, gets girls, gets some shiny new toys, gets into a lot of trouble and stays the same shallow ne’er-do-well that he always was. He’s not limitless at all. He remains limited by trifling interests and frivolous ambitions. He may have a four-digit IQ (by his own estimation), but he remains a charlatan and a heel.

Close-ups of Cooper’s steely blue eyes are frequently used to signify clarity and insight: Eddie sees a lot more than he used to. But he still lacks moral fiber, and his insights are empty and self-serving. Cooper, who specializes in shallow, handsome, charming characters, is perfectly cast. He makes Eddie a guy who is just smart and funny and likable enough, if you don’t look too closely. You can say that about the movie, too: It’s entertaining enough, if you don’t think about it too much.

Syd’s pick: Take a look at The Illusionist from Neil Burger’s back catalogue

Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist, written and directed by Neil Burger, is an entrancingly elaborate cinematic sleight-of-hand. It’s also a thoughtful exploration of the nature of illusion and the power of magic and the mind, set in a time and place – Freud’s Vienna – where the mind was on everybody’s mind.

What really happens remains the central mystery in this teasing, playful movie about a prince (Rufus Sewell), a magician (Edward Norton), a duchess (Jessica Biel) and a police inspector (Paul Giamatti). So much of the story depends on the difference between seeing and believing, between what’s objectively real and what’s subjectively real – both for the audiences in the film and for audiences of the film. Are the magician’s parlor tricks real? Does he have the power to manipulate space and time, or just to manipulate the minds of his audience?

These are, of course, key questions about the power of the cinema and its elaborate illusions as well, and that synthesis of onscreen/offscreen ideas is not lost on the filmmakers, who employ low-tech stagecraft and effects (with the technical guidance of the venerable magician and magic historian Ricky Jay) to recreate the film’s historically accurate magic tricks. The cultural, social and technological upheavals of turn-of-the-century Europe – the tug-of-war between science and superstition, fact and fiction, the real and the ideal, the rational and the romantic – are the real subject of The Illusionist.

@ Syd M
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