A Dumb Version of a Genius: Limitless Movie Review

Bradley Cooper, Limitless Screenshot

Normally, Limitless is not the sort of movie I’d bother watching. I’ll adamantly try my best to stay clear of anything starring Bradley Cooper, or for that matter, Matthew McConaughey or Gerard Butler. I was drawn to Limitless though for the way in which the premise resembled the classic legend of Faust. If the Faust legend is something you’re unfamiliar with, it’s essentially a story where an intellectual sells his soul to Mephistopheles (the devil) to attain infinite knowledge and worldly pleasure. The story has been adapted numerous times, from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to Goethe’s epic Faust to William Gaddis‘ The Recognitions… and now Limitless.

Rembrandt's Faust, from Wikimedia commons

Here the Faust myth is updated for our politically correct era: instead of making a deal with the devil, Bradley Cooper’s character swallows a pill he knows little about. Then, instead of giving up his immortal soul, Cooper has to risk losing his own life due to unforeseen side-effects. Immediately after the chemicals dissolve in his system, he becomes a genius, supposedly using 100% of his brain. It’s at this point that the movie starts to be grating.

What happens when he has this incredible amount of knowledge at his disposal? Does he become some manner of modern superhero, helping others and bolstering society? Nope. He basically becomes what Ayn Rand might’ve envisioned a superhero to be. He uses his miraculous brain only to make money, gain influence, and move up in the world, and, like The Fountainhead, much of the film takes place on the highest floors of skyscrapers, with the main character looking down his nose on the world below, and basically being a snob.

What’s striking about this movie, and what gives it at least some significance, is that it displays how some people might expect geniuses to act. He’s the fast talking variety, the one who knows all the answers and isn’t afraid to do long, condescending monologues. There’s no shortage of these types of characters in Hollywood, and they’re usually played by George Clooney or Matt Damon. Indeed, much of Cooper’s dialogue seems directly lifted from Good Will Hunting. Why is it then that we always imagine geniuses as jerks? In movies, you rarely see kindly geniuses. Is it that if someone is above average there must be something mean-spirited about them?

Wouldn’t a man who could use 100% of his brain finally be able to look past his ego and realize that he needs others to be happy, and that maybe the best thing he could do is help others? According to Limitless, no. The genius is one who uses everything in life to somehow benefit himself. Should we really call Cooper’s character the hero?

There’s one incredibly asanine aspect of the movie: the depiction of the female characters.  Limitless supports the cliched idea that women are somehow puzzles men have to figure out, like a rubix cube or sudoku. Cooper’s character, being a genius supposedly, can figure women out, and as it shows in several scenes, once he does so, he can immediately take them to bed. In one scene, he even puzzles out a woman who previously despised him. So romance is the subjection of an inferior mind to the dominant one? Limitless, where’s your brain?

Spoilers ahead.

Screenshot of Robert De Niro from Limitless

I kept thinking to myself the movie might pick up once the Mephistophelean character joins in. If there’s a Faust, there has to be a Mephistopheles, right? Apparently, that’s wrong. Robert De Niro, for some reason, is cast as the Mephistopheles. He’s a big time corporate executive who can be manipulating–but not manipulative enough. He’s hardly the villain I hoped for. His character hardly does anything, and is never more than a minor obstacle to Cooper.

The movie, as you might have guessed, ends with Cooper’s character going as high as a “genius” can go, and that’s into office. I can’t remember now what he was elected to be, suffice it to say that it was an important position. So geniuses, according to Limitless, talk fast like Good-Will-Hunting-esque snobs, use women as objects (most of the women he encounters are only in 1 or 2 scenes), out-smart fellow self-absorbed CEOs, and meander their way into politics? And these are supposed to be heroes?

Hollywood, you can keep your Limitless and Ayn Rand geniuses, I’d much rather pay homage to geniuses like James Joyce, Umberto Eco, Billy Wilder, Cynthia Ozick and Pauline Kael–people who found their right place in society, and stayed there.

—-I have recently written and published a novel titled A Rapturous Occasion. It’s a comedy of errors revolving around a wealthy couple who believe the world will soon be ending. If you’d like to read it, please check out the Amazon product page, where it’s available in paperback and as an ebook (the ebook is only $1.50 right now).

If you’d like to watch a sci-fi thriller that’s a lot smarter than Limitless, why not give Hanna a shot?

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