Monday, March 21, 2011

Faust On Steroids

The movie Limitless is based on an intriguing notion: no one uses their brain to its fullest capacity. The myth (and it is a myth) that we normally use only 10% of our brain. Psychics like to believe that the unused 90% is a vast, unconscious ocean of paranormal potential. Premonitions, clairvoyance, telepathy, telekinetics, communication with the dead, are all within our purview if we allow ourselves to access that nebulous mist of unused brain function.

Others merely hunger for greater success in life.

I know that feeling: the mental sluggishness of a normal day when forming a thought is like wrestling sandbags into place, or digging a hole in frozen ground, or trying to find a lost contact lens on the sidewalk. That ugly feeling when we are in a conversation and trying to make a positive impression on someone of influence, dazzle them wit and erudition, and we find ourselves nervously fidgeting, painfully self-conscious, laboring to string words together so that they sparkle and light up the room, but it ain’t happening, the magic isn’t there, the entire enterprise is as effortful and futile as trying to find a lost engagement ring in a pool of black sludge. We know the potential is there; we just can’t find it. If there was just a way to tap into that rich, virgin field of unused brain, open the sluice and let it all come rushing out in crystal clarity and nuggets of gold. It is then, if we are not already in a 12 step program, that we begin to wonder where the guy with the martinis is hiding, or if anyone in the room (preferably someone we know) might have some cocaine.

The 10% myth is wrong. Brain imaging research techniques such as PET scans (positron emission tomography) and FMIR (functional magnetic resonance imaging) show that most of the brain is used. No parts of it lie fallow. Much has been said recently about the plasticity of the brain, and its ability to grow and cluster new synaptic connections when certain aspects are put in repeated use, but that’s for another discussion.

That aside, I liked Limitless quite a bit. Bradley Cooper was the perfect choice for the lead character. He’s handsome, and projects a natural intelligence and charm that makes you want to get to know him. He seems like the perfect drinking partner, the kind of guy you want to hang out with who will attract women without putting you in stressful competition or making you feel like a sap. That’s why was so great in The Hangover.

In Limitless, he’s even more likeable. For starters, he’s a loser. He shuffles down the sidewalk in Manhattan with long shaggy hair, disheveled and seedy, and his voice-over narration remarks that if anyone looks like they’re strung out on drugs when they’re not actually strung out on drugs, it’s because they’re a writer.

We see him in his messy, tiny apartment agonizing in front of a computer screen, trying to come up with some sprightly, marketable prose. He has actually already scored a book contract, which is no small achievement, and Roberta spotted a copy of Barthes On Barthes on his book shelf. The guy is an intellect. He’s not a hack writer. He’s not writing supermarket thrillers. He’s the real deal. And he’s suffering.

Cooper goes back and forth from his apartment to the bars. Out on the sidewalk, he runs into his ex-brother-in-law, a slick guy his own age who invites him to share a drink. A former drug dealer, the ex-brother-in-law announces that he’s doing quite well for himself now, he’s in the pharmaceutical industry, and hey, check this out, it’s a new drug called NZT-48, not on the market yet, but FDA approved. He puts a single pill on the table: and this is one of the things I liked best about the movie. The pill. It doesn’t have a color. It’s clear. Completely transparent. It looks like a button. What a perfect metaphor for a drug that allows you to see everything clearly.

And it’s expensive: $800 bucks a pop. All sorts of Faustian red flags go up. And the movie is on its way.

Fortunately, the ex-brother-in-law doesn’t charge Cooper for the pill. And Cooper initially doesn’t even want it. He accepts it reluctantly. The first time he takes it is when he returns to his squalid apartment building to find his very attractive Asian landlady yelling at him about not paying back rent and warning him he’s going to get kicked out onto the street if he doesn’t come up with some rent quick. She’s not so easily duped as her husband. No sir. She's going to stand there and continue to berate and unload on him until he crawls away like the little cockroach he is. Cooper, desperate for a solution, takes the pill. Minutes later he’s in bed with his pretty landlady after helping her with her law school paper. He’s brilliant. He sees patterns in everything. Solutions arrive easily, packaged in thrilling spurts of cerebral joy.

What I didn’t like about the movie was the underlying premise that turns Cooper from a successful midlist author into a savvy Wall Street shark.

What is up with that? Why is there always this assumption that really smart people go to the top of the building and become smartly dressed business tycoons holding forth in glitzy boardrooms? Are we to believe that the sociopaths at Goldman Sachs and their ilk are superior in intellect to the rest of us? That’s bullshit.

Is Donald Trump our modern day Socrates? Is Warren Buffet our Aristotle? Is Bill Gates our Plato? God forbid.

Why couldn’t Cooper’s character have become a sharp intellect whose books alter the course of human history? Enlighten people? Inspire people? Write books that inspire and challenge and transform human consciousness? Write books like Victor Frankl about our desperate search for meaning in a universe of cold indifference and infinite complexity? Come up with an idea to halt climate change? Free people from the oppression and corruption of corporate culture? Why did the entire narrative have to anchor itself in the shallow harbor of obscene, narcissistic wealth?

Well, for one thing, you’d no longer have a thriller. You’d no longer have a movie. Movies are all about action. That’s why they call them movies. They move. The images move. The conflicts move our emotions.

Still. There must be some way Cooper’s intelligence could have gotten him into trouble without bringing in Wall Street. High finance. Robert De Niro as a craggy, volatile, high powered diesel locomotive of unswerving ambition who thrives on cutthroat competition and rides in fancy limousines with tinted windows. Perhaps De Niro could have been a craggy, volatile, high powered diesel locomotive of academic distinction. A professor of philosophy at Harvard. Or a Socrates of the trade unions. Who Cooper comes to aid and abet in a war against totalitarianism.

Why is everything always about money?

Taken strictly as a movie, I really enjoyed Limitless, and would love to see it again. But its premise of intelligence leading to wealth is something I will have to take with a grain of salt.

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