Limitless stars Bradley Cooper as a down-and-out writer who gets a chance to make it big when he’s given a pill that allows him to access a hundred percent of his brain. Cooper you may know from such fare as The Hangover, or that Valentine’s Day movie (I must’ve seen the preview a hundred times – you know, the one where Julia Roberts tells him the stewardess thinks he’s cute and he doesn’t believe her, then the stewardess offers him peanuts with a big glimmering smile and hilarity ensues). The blue-eyed leading man does a good enough job of looking like a tousled, slightly drinky writer, thanks to the make-up (he’s sallow) and hair (he’s frizzy) departments. The grungy look of the cinematography lends to his loserdom.
Now, let’s begin: In a city of almost 9 million people, his brother in-law, whom he hasn’t seen for seven years or so, bumps into him on the streets of Manhattan. That’s plausible, right? A few years ago I bumped into a guy I went to high school with at a comedy club in the city; I even brushed past Joan Rivers once. But this guy, this ex brother in-law, urges our disheveled hero to come have a drink and catch up. Soon, the ex brother in-law is pushing the pill onto our writer friend. Why? Who knows. Maybe he’s just that snaky dealer-type who is compelled to hook people. Maybe he’s got some strange vindictive thing, some sibling jealousy from the writer’s marriage to his sister. None of these possibilities are offered, though; he just shows up and says, “Well I’ve got just the thing to help you.”
Cooper, who has been sitting at the computer for weeks in his dumpy apartment, takes the pill after only a perfunctory display of hesitation. He swallows it down and heads home. As the daughter of his landlord, or someone, I can’t remember who, begins to harass him in the hallway, the drug comes on, and lo and behold, that gritty style of shooting popularized by Nan Goldin suddenly becomes flushed with shining light, to deftly represent our character’s change in nature. He learns from the experience that he can now talk his way out of anything, accessing all memories, even the tiniest trivialities, with great dexterity. He learns that he can control a situation with his mind…and get the landlord’s daughter (or whoever she is) to go to bed with him a few minutes later.
That’s a hundred percent of your brain at work, ladies and gentlemen. Crafty manipulation and the ability to slyly coerce someone into sex. But, in all fairness, we’re just getting warmed up. Let’s just say, though, for sake of argument, that going from an intimidated boob to talking your way out of a landlord’s daughter’s tirade and into her pants has boosted our hero from 20% of his brain to maybe 21 or 22%. Fair enough?
In his apartment, Cooper wanders around for a minute before the gestalt moment – his high-beaming brain turns in the direction of his writing. Of course! The writing. Somehow, miraculously, he already has a book deal with a publisher who has been impatiently expecting pages. He’s, of course, written absolutely nothing. But he sits down on the wonder drug and he bangs out a hundred pages through the night. The next day he brings it into the publisher’s and slaps it down on her desk and we’re on our way. Writing a hundred pages in one night that the publisher ends up really liking? 25%. 30, tops. Right? After all, consider that the existing 20% has provided for the Sistine Chapel, The Pyramids, Einstein, flying to the moon, and sliced bread. Pretty good for a species not long from the jungle. Anyway-
The thing with the writing is that he finishes his book a couple of pills later. He decides (in a voice over narration that’s been superfluously hanging in the air since the beginning of the film) that writing isn’t the extent of what he can do; what he’s capable of is much “bigger” than that. Now, at the beginning of the movie, which is the front piece of a little bookend that brackets the first and second act, we actually start where things have gotten really bad for Cooper, and he’s about to tell us the story of how they got bad, and he says, “I thought I could change the world.” So now, thirty minutes in, I’m thinking when he decides to leave writing and do something “bigger” that this is it. This is where he turns his new powers on something that will benefit mankind.
First, he gets a hair cut. Next, he gets some snappy new clothes. This is, perhaps, symbolic of his character development. He then decides to get into the stock market and turns a few thousand bucks into a couple million in only a few days. That’s fine, and cool, I guess, and in keeping with the film’s motif of “what would you do?” I get it. Many of us would do the same thing – use the new powers for personal gain. (See Jumper) But Cooper just keeps on rolling. He gets a chance to meet Carl Van Loon, played by a wrinkle-foreheaded always-a-pleasure De Niro. Van Loon is the biggest guy in the city, you know, for owning giant, vague, mega-corporations that want to merge with or squash the competition.
Right about this time, though, is when Cooper starts to experience some side effects of the drug. And also right about this time is when the movie begins to unravel.
Let’s shift gears for a minute and talk about something called “experience” versus “concept.” It’s been said that an auteur like John Cassavettes, particularly with his film A Woman Under the Influence (starring Gena Rolands) is a director who gives the audience an experience. A story unfolds in front of you. You witness the character change throughout; more, you feel their agony, their joy. You have a visceral experience. This is also achieved by the great filmmaker Albert Maysles who, using something called “direct cinema” (at the time of its inception, pre-reality-TV and when very few documentaries were coming out) which was a revolutionary, some called rogue idea. Put the camera there and allow it to be a true medium, the bridge by which you are invited into an experience of people’s lives (and, Maysles once told me when I met him, in a metaphysical way, a means for those people to connect with you, too). This is experiential filmmaking. It doesn’t have to be as extreme as these two films – other examples could be Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (particularly the thirty-minute opening sequence) or Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. These films hand you an experience. Other films…not so much. An analogy could be made to cooking – in experiential films, it is the chef handing you a meal to enjoy. In concept filmmaking, it is a chef explaining the taste of the food to you.
Let’s track a process: You write a screenplay. You then synopsize the screenplay in a form of a treatment, or summary. As the filmmaker, Guinevere Turner says, a screenplay is already a description of something. To write a summary is to write a description of a description. You then write a pitch. You act your pitch out in front of producers. “What a great concept,” they may say. If the film gets made, then afterwards the marketing team puts together a trailer, a sort of representational pitch. A pitch of a pitch.
Limitless is a high concept film. It’s a story that can be summated in one glorious line. It represents something they are famed to say in Hollywood: “It’s a movie.” This means that there are the right elements to be able to market the concept: There is love, there is action, there is spectacle. Limitless itself then becomes only an extended concept. When Cooper first starts to use his powers, this is when I, for one, would love to stay there in those moments, to really vicariously experience what it would be like to use a hundred percent of my brain. But this part of the film hurries through in a montage using some special photographic effects. We only briefly see Cooper using his new powers. He talks Italian at an Italian restaurant. He gets more women to sleep with him. We see him wowing some people at a club when he talks about how the economy is something that comes down to individual psychology more than anything else; if you can predict human behavior, you can predict the economy. (This is something I have often thought myself, and its arguable whether or not I even use the whole 20% of my brain.) But, that’s it. After about two minutes, we’ve blown through the cool experience of actually having a pill like this go to work on you. The filmmaker instead ushers us into the consequences, because that’s where the action and tension are supposed to be.
Cooper starts to go a little bit crazy, and a night out turns into an eighteen hour blackout wherein he may or may not have killed a girl. The next morning, beleaguered by a kind of medical hangover, Cooper is supposed to meet with Van Loon again. It’s his chance to seal the deal with the corporate bigwig. For some reason, though, he doesn’t take his pills. We’re made to think that he’s out of them – the little jar he keeps in his apartment is empty. He goes to the meeting and blows it, running out on Van Loon. Moments later he’s at his girlfriend’s office, sicker than a dog, telling her that he’s stashed the rest of his pills at her place. Why didn’t he go to her apartment before the meeting and just take one? Indeed those pills are there – she goes and retrieves them (little clear pills that seem to be the only limitless thing about the story) there appear to be as many pills as he had since he first got them. On her way back to him, the girlfriend picks up someone following her. And this is where it really gets good. Panicked, on the phone with Cooper who, despite his sickness and all the trouble they’ve brought him so far, advises her to take a pill in order to think her way out of the situation with the guy chasing her. So, she does. The bright lights come on. She looks around and sees a little girl ice skating. AHAH! She then runs onto the ice, the bad guy on her heels, picks up the little girl and flings her around as a weapon so that the blades of the skates slice the guy in his face.
That’s it. That’s what access to a hundred percent of her brain has blessed her with; using a child as a weapon. To me, and I may just be not using all of my brain power here, that seems like a step backward rather than forward.
With his stash in hand again, Cooper promises her that he will get off the stuff. She decides to leave him anyway (for the second time, the movie begins with her leaving him because he’s a loser) and Cooper just goes back to business as usual. First he has to answer to suspicion of murder. He is forced to participate in a line-up that his lawyer has sort of “fixed,” so that all the other guys in the line-up look just like Cooper does. The lawyer says something incomprehensible about how the witness (who we never see) couldn’t be decisive, so we guess that means Cooper is off the hook. Meanwhile there’s heavy after him who wants the pills too, and we come full circle to where we were at the beginning, with Cooper voice-overing to us how it has all gone to pot and the only way out is to leap from his penthouse to his death. Suicide, some may argue, is perhaps not the extent of human brain power. But there he is, and there we are, stuck nowhere at the end of act II.
Act III only gets, well, stupider. It is twelve months later. Not a year, mind you, but “twelve months,” as the title card declares, perhaps because “twelve months” is something smarter to say than “a year.” Cooper has gotten another hair cut and has become a politician. Van Loon comes to see him. Now, I may have missed something, but the Van Loon character never seemed like the bad guy to me. If anything, when he earlier delivers a speech about how Cooper may have some genius gift but he’ll never know the hard work, the blood sweat and tears it has taken someone like Van Loon himself to get where he is, I said Hoowah! It’s a great speech. Van Loon’s character has had integrity and grit. But now, at the end, for some reason, he’s asking for Cooper to come back to work for him and Cooper ostensibly puts him in his place. In an arrogant, ill-placed sermon, including dubious information that he is no longer taking the pills, but somehow still smart, Cooper shuts the door on Van Loon and smiles into the day. Finally, we see him with the girlfriend (who has apparently taken him back a second time, now, too) and he speaks Chinese to (or Vietnamese, of Cantonese – again, I’m not claiming to have access to my higher brain functions) the waiter of the same ethnicity. His girlfriend gives him a look, he grins, and says, “What?”
The film ends. I guess we’re supposed to wonder whether he is actually off the pills or not. If by taking them for a certain period of time he sort of “grew” his brain. Maybe we’re supposed to think that unequivocally, I don’t know. I was left confused.
Limitless, to its credit, is more than just a film. It’s a statement, whether it means to be or not. The concept is there that a pill can make us use a hundred percent of our brain, though, as I think I’ve shown, there is never really any instance of that. Aside from a better vocabulary and wardrobe and some flashy parlor tricks, there is nothing to indicate access to the mysteries and potential power of the human mind. Instead, we have a bunch of people behaving like, well, morons. Upon taking the pill, Cooper tosses aside his dream of writing to make money and get girls. When it becomes clear that the pills are having an adverse effect on him, he continues to take them, despite promises to the contrary. The man who helps him rise to higher status, Van Loon, becomes his enemy because, well, Cooper just decides to see him that way. So what we have is a strong suggestion that the higher realms of the human brain will bestow greed, sex, and conflict.
Limitless also tells us something else. In its execution the film is little more than a story about what would be a cool idea for a movie. We quickly hop over the good stuff, the interesting stuff, to get to all the goodies we’ve seen before – chases and tricky photography and bad guys beating people up. This is nothing new, as far as blockbuster attempts go. Yet people will undoubtedly line up to see it. Obviously I did. (It was either that or a kid’s movie playing at the time.) I was skeptical about the concept, not because it didn’t intrigue me (it did) but because, like a perpetual abuse victim, I’ve been let down before by fare in the Limitless ilk and still go anyway. I don’t mind being let down, though; it often gives me as much to think about, if not more than, a pleasing film. In this case, the film made me wonder about where we are as a society, as a culture. The fact that we don’t seem to have the first imaginative or intuitive clue about what it would be like to use all of our brains I can leave aside. I can’t penalize our “culture” for this lack, because what we’re talking about is the business of making movies. What I can say though is that the film to me is deeply characteristic of the entropy of our culture through commerce. Film arts have been denigrated by commerce; this is nothing new. What’s interesting though is how this denigration indeed reflects other elements of our culture, of American civilization. The great topplings of previous civilizations have always been preceded by a period of ennui. John Adams said that he must study war and politics so that his sons may study law and architecture so that their sons may enjoy the arts. We have gone another step beyond the arts.
In the film, the director uses a photographic effect – a perpetual tracking shot that rockets through the city, plunging ever forward, through cars, under scaffolding, down street after street. It’s a neat digital effect in some respect, in another, it was a little discomfiting. By likely piecing together several live-action shots using telephoto lenses, the filmmakers achieve one long, never ending push-in through the city. However, it appears flat. Rather than a sense of being escorted forward, of tunneling, it feels like the images are being ushered to you. The intent is probably supposed to support the “limitless” motif, and, again, lends to its antithesis, that this trick becomes mere amusement. The senses go, hmm, interesting, and that’s the extent of it.
This is what has become of art. We’ve left behind vicarious experience for concepts of vicarious experience, we’ve traded stories for films about stories. We have entered into the realm of amusement. Something shiny to temporarily distract us. We live in a world where we watch Survivor to amuse ourselves while much of the rest of the world lives with the realities of struggles the TV show manufactures. We poke at our phones and play endless games. We go to amusement parks. We watch inane television. We watch people launch themselves into the air inside Port-a-Potties. We consume vast amounts of vampires in love and zombies with hearts of gold. We watch YouTube videos about children coming out of anesthesia, kitty cats, and kids wrecking on skateboards. We watch films about using a hundred percent of our brain that depict us as shallow, money-hungry, pill-addict boobs. That depict us as, really, limited.