Limitlessrecommended viewing

An ice-skating child may be the most logical choice of weapon
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2011
Director: 
Neil Burger
Starring: 
Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Abbie Cornish
The Setup: 
Guy takes a drug that puts his brain into overdrive.
Discussion: 

This was the first movie in some time that I was actually looking forward to, not just begrudgingly accepting. I just love this kind of cautionary science fiction and a movie of its ilk has got to be pretty bad to get me not to like it. This one had me enraptured from start to finish--even through the obviously tacked-on ending that invalidates and betrays every one of the points the movie has been trying to make. So lets get to it!

This movie is about a pill that will unlock your brain's potential, letting you use all of your brain, giving you perfect memory and access to everything you have ever seen or heard. As such it plays on our culture of medication, but also the pharmaceutical marketing-created belief that every problem in life can be instantly cured with a pill--that they just happen to be selling. I have friends who are psychologists and they have made me aware of the now prevalent belief, created by pharma marketing and scientific trials (funded by pharma companies) that show that all your problems are really just the result of a chemical imbalance. You're not depressed because you're divorced with two kids that are on drugs and you have little to no prospect of getting remarried, and you've lost your job and now have no relevant skills and are looking at a career as a Wal-Mart greeter--that's not what's bothering you! It's really just a CHEMICAL IMBALANCE. And there just happens to be a pill for that! This whole phenomenon goes hand-in-hand with the trend in our culture away from complexity, or anything that takes time and effort. So now you have serious books about how thinking an issue through is bad, and it's better to go with your first impulse. Or you see ads about "one weird tip" to flatten your belly or whiten your teeth, further enforcing the idea that methods that take time and sustained effort [eating less and exercising] are just bullshit, and really if you just eat cayenne pepper and apple cores [or some such] the pounds will just melt off. There are lately serious, educated people who will say that in the our wired world now, you don't need to actually KNOW anything, you just need to know how to Google it--ignoring the concept that if you don't know anything, you don't KNOW what you need to Google. And I have heard from various informed parties that if you want to be an artist, you need to pump out three pieces a week--meaning that carefully-constructed art that takes time, care and patience is a thing of the past. So we have all these new pills and technologies that make everything easy and instant, and to counter the nagging feeling that we are losing something by being so fast-paced and shallow, we are starting to shift the culture to the idea that investing time, effort and thought was just BULLSHIT ALL ALONG, and that embracing a fast and surface-level mode of being is not just practical, but actually superior.

Now are you ready to have a fast-paced sci-fi thriller about all that? FUCK. YES.

We open with Cooper as Eddie Morra standing on the ledge of his high-rise balcony, about to kill himself, angry parties pounding at his door. But now we're going to flash back and tell the story, after a super-fun and trippy credits sequence in which we keep zooming in and in and in down a long endless Manhattan street. We meet Eddie a few months prior, when he was trying to write a sci-fi novel that would also be his manifesto about like, life and stuff, and getting dumped by his girlfriend Lindy. She's played by lovely Abbie Cornish of Somersault, who turns out to be a little mini Charlize Theron when scrubbed up. Eddie is living the struggling writer's cliche by having his hair unkempt and hanging out in bars when he runs into his brother-in-law, Vern, who gives him a pill that is supposedly FDA-approved. Turns out it's not, which is a bummer, as I hoped this would be a satirical slam on how the FDA will basically approve anything lobbied to them hard enough. Later Eddie takes the pill, and as he does, the tone on screen changes from cold blue to warm yellow, and he finds he can remember things he only saw once, years ago, and knows how to handle every situation. He sits down and writes 40 pages of sheer brilliance, which gets his publisher interested again. And the next day--he needs more drug!

He goes to Vern's, and finds him with fresh bruises on his face, a great menacing touch. I should also mention that the pills themselves are Asprin-shaped, yet translucent, giving them just enough of an exotic look to work. Vern sends him out to pick up breakfast, and when he returns, the place is ransacked and Vern has been shot in the head! Eddie figures they were looking for the drug--and may not have found it. He deduces where it is, and ends up with a huge stash, and a wad of cash!

So he starts taking the drug every day, finishes his novel, learns piano, learns several languages, cleans up his appearance, and becomes mister smooth with the ladies and the A-listers. The conceit has a simple logic that works: Eddie now remembers everything, so one listen through a language tape and he remembers it all. He is able to effortlessly remember everything he has ever seen or heard. The first minor evidence we hear of some possible downside is "If I wasn't moving forward, I felt like I was going to explode."

By now we have had cause to note that Cooper is ideal for this role, with already somewhat too-clear bright blue eyes and slick demeanor. He gets Lindy back. He does online trades and makes two million in two days. He says he has an idea for what to do with all his power, and this idea will require serious money, so he makes the serious mistake of getting a loan from the Russian mob. Do you think this is going to work out well? And if Cooper's so smart, he's surely remember to pay the mobster back and be done with him, right?

SPOILERS > > >
Well, we need some conflict, right? So the movie makes a huge logical lapse and Eddie does NOT pay the mobster back. It's a contrivance, but I can see where it's going, so I didn't mind. Eddie is being set up in a huge merger deal with Robert DeNiro as Carl Van Loon. The he finds he is starting to have little lost periods--like 18 hours that he cannot account for. He suddenly has a limp. This woman he recalls going to bed with ended up murdered after he was with her, and he doesn't know if he had anything to do with it. He tries to stop taking the drug and screws up his high-powered deal with Van Loon, his brain power suddenly off, and he starts to feel worse and worse.

He looks up Vern's other contacts, and they're all dead or in the hospital. He meets Vern's ex-wife, who used the drug, and she looks like shit, and says she hasn't been able to concentrate for more than ten minutes in two years. She tells him taper off, but don't stop suddenly. Then the Russian gangster shows up, ends up taking a pill--then ends up coming back, demanding more. There's also a mysterious man tailing him. And his phone is tapped. Because obviously he wasn't the only person to do--and need--this drug, right?

Now comes a really off-the-wall bizarre scene that is so loony you have to love it. Eddie realizes he needs another dose, but there are too many people following him, so he sends Lindy. She gets it, but realizes the creepy following man is after her. She runs through Central Park, asks these two big guys for help--and the creepy man kills the two guys in broad daylight! She ends up trapped by these rocks! Eddie advises her, by phone, to take a pill--then she'll know what to do. She does, things get clear, and she starts sizing up potential weapons. There's the guy with the baseball bat. There's the fellow with the garden shears. There's... the little girl with the ice skates? Ummm, OKAY, I guess. Finally Lindy makes a bolt for it, and chooses the most logical weapon: the little girl with the ice skates! She runs out, leaps onto the terrace above the ice rink, leaps fifteen feet down to the ice [without slipping and falling], RUNS on the ICE [without slipping and falling], grabs the little girl and swings her entire body at precisely the right angle and distance for the blades to cut her attacker's face! I'm sure you can see that this is clearly the most logical alternative, given the situation. I also love that the parent of the child is totally fine with some stranger using his daughter as an impromptu weapon, and the girl herself will apparently NOT be traumatized by some bully woman picking her up and using her to inflict bloody damage on some stranger. But you know what? It was so out-there loopy, I LOVED it. And poor Abbie Cornish has to walk away from this whole scene with a serious expression [see photo], as though that entire bit made SOME sort of sense. It's enough to make you suspect that this whole thing was added later, when they realized that Cornish is barely in the movie. But I do seriously love the idea that Lindy has now been drawn into taking the drug, and now runs the risk of becoming addicted herself. Too bad this whole angle is abruptly dropped.

Yes, Lindy realizes that drug is wack, and she breaks up with Eddie again. Now Eddie is managing his intake, and realizes if he remembers to eat and doesn't drink, no more blackouts. But he's still being followed, still has Russian mobster problems, and finds his apartment being ransacked. Soon we're back to where we were at the start. There's a shootout, and Eddie has to pursue a fairly gruesome course of action to get the drug and get his wits to get out of the situation.

Then--one year later! Eddie is now a bestselling author, and he's running for senate! Van Loon shows up again, saying he now controls the drug and Eddie is essentially going to work for him. And now--THE TACKED-ON ENDING! Now, we don't know what the original ending of the script was, but the novel apparently ends with Eddie in a hospital. The preceding book has been his confession, and then he dies. Not fun, right? Plus, it sounds like someone has to pay some consequences, and those are never fun. What IS fun is to pretend that you can have it all without ANY consequences! So Eddie lets us know that he has refined the drug into a safe version without side effects! AND he has weaned himself from it, so he's no longer on it! BUT the drug permanently rewired his brain, so now he gets all the benefits without ANY downside! Sounds like a triple win!

Now sure, this ending completely invalidates, and in fact pisses on, the ENTIRE POINT of this movie, i.e. that it's impossible to get all these benefits without paying some serious consequences, and ends up making a statement that you actually CAN get everything and pay nothing, but you know what? It's still a satisfying ending. It's fun, and I personally didn't feel cheated. You're kind of behind Eddie to figure it all out, so when he does, it's like, good for him. Though why in the world anyone would want to be a senator is beyond me.
< < < SPOILERS END

This is totally my kind of movie. I loved it. You have some light social criticism of a serious real-world topic, and then they find clever ways to rachet up the stakes and twist the moral implications, and it's all quite fun and energetically directed with cool animations and visual tricks that tell the story instead of just distracting. Sure there are a ton of loose ends--we NEVER find out what Eddie's big plan he's been working toward is--but in a way that gave the whole thing a casual momentum I enjoyed. For example, there's never any clear villain, there are just a number of nefarious parties that keep multiplying, and the point becomes that Eddie has to constantly run around putting out tiny fires. The trailer makes it out that DeNiro is some kind of major menace, who is going to bring some serious pain to Eddie, but his whole story thread turns out to be only tangentially related to anything. He's just another of the multiplying fires Eddie has to put out, and darn it, that lack of focus worked. Better than having some neat, clean, screenwriter's 101 perfectly positioned antagonist. This way the movie has a loose rhythm and lack of focus that works.

Oh so one other thing. This movie was so energetic and its fantasy of power so invigorating, I found that upon immediately walking out I was AMPED UP, felt restless and powerful, and wanted everyone else OUT OF MY WAY. I go to the bathroom and am waiting for a stall, when this kid half my age comes around in front of me and stands waiting on the other side, actually closer to the stalls. I say "I'm waiting," and he tosses back this attitude-filled "We're all waiting." And I felt this very clear sense that if he tried to go in before me, I was resolved to HURT HIM VERY SERIOUSLY. A door near him opened and he made no move to enter before me, and once I was on the subway I was like: "WHAT was that about? I'm going to incur assault charges because some kid is being a prick?" And all I can say is that I was noticably quite revved-up and aggressive after watching this movie--that invites you to the vicarious fantasy of being all-powerful and casts everyone else as disposable peons. Just some anecdotal evidence for the effects of pop culture.

Whew! That's it. I need a sandwich.

Should you watch it: 

If you're into this kind of social criticism science fiction, totally. For everyone else, it's still pretty good.