Limitless (2011)

Rated PG-13. V -4; L -2; S/N -2. Running time: 1 hour 45 min

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the
fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You
shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle
of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’
“But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die;
for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will
be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good
and evil.”
Genesis 3:2-5

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.
Proverbs 3:13-14

Billionaire Carl Van Loon wants to use the gifted Eddie in his acquisitive business.

2011 Relativity Media

If you could take a pill that would exponentially increase your intelligence, memory and motor skills, would you swallow it? Even though it lasted just for a day and you do not know if here are any side ef fects? That is the question faced by a down on his luck writer Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) in director Neil Burger and writer Leslie Dixon’s film, based on Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields. I was thinking that this would be another cautionary tale like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, The Fly, The Hollow Man, or any number of other such films (and yes, even The Tower of Babel story in Genesis), but in the last act, the plot moves in a different direction.

Eddie is a scuzzy-looking guy living in a trash-heap of a flat, unable to finish even the first page of the novel he owes the editor who foolishly had advanced him some money. His long-suffering girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) has just returned him the keys to his flat, when a few minutes later he runs into Vern, the brother of the woman to whom he had been married for a brief time. For some reason, Vern invites him for a beer and offers him NZT, a pill that he claims will allow him to access the 95 percent of his brain that is never used. Once a drug dealer, Vern now allegedly works for a pharmaceutical company that is testing the drug.

Eddie says “No,” but Vern leaves it with him anyway along with his card, and of course, the desperate Eddie soon is taking it and feeling transformed as inside his brain we see synapses firing. Seeming to be four persons, Eddy cleans up his messy room and finishes the first section of his novel. The pill’s effects last but a day, so Eddies calls on Vern, only to find the poor guy has been brutally murdered and his apartment trashed. Eddie calls the police, but also searches for the cache of pills that he thinks the killers have not found. Bingo, there they are in a clever hiding place. Soon he is taking one a day, succeeding in finishing his novel, winning big at a gambling casino and also in the stock market. He draws the attention of a big time broker and soon is wowing him and his associates as he continues to combine everything he has ever seen with what he can now take in so rapidly and reach a decision that is always on the mark. He has also won back Lindy.

So, what more could a man want, whose book is acclaimed the work of a genius and bound for the NY Times’ Best Seller List, and who has added thousands upon thousands of dollars to his bank account? In Eddie’s case more, plenty more. He wants to make not millions on the stock market, but billions. This would take a long time if he did it the old fashioned way by invetsing just his own profits from his trading, so he finds a loan shark from whom he wants to borrow half a million dollars. Now this soon leaves us wondering just how smart Eddie really is, for the shark not only looks mean, but he has a Russian accent. (Maybe Eddie never saw any of the thrillers of the past few years in which greedy Russian gangsters kill in such ruthless ways.)

Two other wrinkles in Eddie’s life. He now has periods between pills in which he cannot remember what he did. The woman whom he had picked up and had casual sex with in a hotel room. She has been found murdered. Did he do it? Secondly, his stock broker friend has set him up with the country’s richest businessman Carl Van Loon (Robert de Niro). Unfortunately this comes at a time when Eddie is running out of pills, so although he initially impresses the shrewd billionaire with his analysis of a potential merger deal, at other meetings Eddie can barely function, his health so deteriorated that he walks with a limp. And there is that menacing Russian who wants to obtain Eddie’s pill supply. It is not just Eddie who is in danger. The loan shark and another man stalking Eddie become a danger to Lindy in one exciting chase scene through Central Park, with the answer to her rescue enveloping her in Eddie’s scheme deeper than she wants to go.

Just when it looks like this will follow in the path of the usual cautionary tale, the film switches (I might say “jumps” ) tracks, and…well see for yourself, as this is a very entertaining film, even though it is disappointing at the end. It seems sad that the filmmakers apparently have totally bought into the concept that life is “better through chemistry.” I’ve noticed that a number of reviewers have missed the message, still labeling it a “cautionary film” despite the way in which Eddie winds up. If it were, the title would be ironic, but the ending shows that the filmmakers have no such intention. After the credits rolled, I was reminded of the arguments of Timothy Leary and his followers about the higher consciousness gained from LSD and other psychodelic drugs back in the Sixties. A lot of people were seduced into taking a short cut to a promised “higher consciousness” through LSD and other drugs derived from sacred mushrooms. A lot of people paid a high price, levied on themselves and their families. Flawed though it be, Limitless does offer a good opportunity for a group to examine and debate its premise.

For Reflection/Discussion

Spoilers toward the end of this section.

1. What do you think of Eddie when you first see him? How might Vern’s pill be very tempting? See any similarities between this and the forbidden fruit in the Genesis story of the Temptation and Fall? Or of the Tower of Babel story? How does Eddie seek to “make a name for” himself?

2. What other films have you see that follow a Faustian plot? (Frankenstein; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Fly; The Hollow Man; The Island of Dr. Moreau; Jurassic Park; etc.) How do virtually all of them end?

3. What flaw do we see in Eddie when he decides to seek out a loan shark? Or, why doesn’t he just use his stock market earnings to increase his wealth? What consequences does his decision to take a financial short cut bring? How is this part of the traditional cautionary tale?

4. What do you think of the ending? How is this an endorsement that we can take shortcuts to obtain our desires? But is it true to life? How apparently the filmmakers bought into this—or might they have chosen this ending just to tweak those of us expecting the film to end like other cautionary morality tales?

5. The pill vastly increases Eddie’s ability to acquire knowledge, he now being able to recall everything that he has seen or read. Would this always be a good thing? Do we need to lay aside much of what we experience? Do you think that there could be a knowledge overload? What consequences might such a thing bring on?

6. Eddie has acquired vast knowledge, but what about wisdom? What is the difference between the two? (Note that in Kings the newly anointed King Solomon asks for wisdom, not knowledge.) Does Eddie display wisdom when he goes to a loan shark for money? His abilities suppo
sedly lead him into a successful political career, but do you think he will be taking shortcuts on his way to the White House? What might some of these be? What kind of a leader do you think a person making Faustian deals will make? Indeed, when he has run out of pills and fighting for his life against the gang leader, how does he manage to ingest the chemicals from the pill that the gangster had taken so that he can figure his way out of his dilemma? What does this vampire-like act suggest in regard to Eddy’s future?