Friday, March 18, 2011


MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -

Let me begin by saying that Limitless (screenplay by Leslie Dixon, directed by Neil Burger and based on the book by Alan Glynn) deserves an R-rating rather than a PG-13. It’s not because of various fairly graphic depictions of violence as well as various sexual situations that while not involving nudity certainly suggested much. It is simply the subject matter that arguably makes this a very dangerous movie.

So why would I label this a "dangerous" movie and yet proceed to post a review of it here anyway?

I think that the movie is "dangerous" because I find it so easy to imagine all kinds of people, who for all kinds of reasons, will try to come up with and/or score a mind performance enhancing drug like the fictional one of this movie. At the same time, the movie does _thankfully_ take the audience through all kinds of really frightening scenarios that would probably dissuade the vast majority of people from the endeavor. 

Then the topic of "limits" -- overcoming them through hard work (as in Rocky, et al) or through technological achievement (Wright Brothers, et al) or, yes, transgressing them as in Genesis 3 or Frankenstein, Jurrasic Park, etc -- is fundamentally interesting. So while I simply can not understand why _this movie_ got a PG-13 rating, I do think that a movie named Limitless invites adult reflection.  And then, this stuff _is coming_ folks and we have to be ready for it.

Ok, let's digress and see how the story is set up: A stuck-in-the-mud, struggling writer named Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) living in New York, hasn’t been put a single sentence on paper for months despite having received an advance on his book. As a result, his girlfriend Lindy (played by Abbie Cornish) leaves him. She was just made an editor at the publishing house where she’s working and he’s obviously going nowhere. Eddie knows the drill, he’s been divorced once already.

By coincidence, on the way home from the restaurant (check paid by his former girlfriend) where he had been dumped, he runs into his former brother-in-law, Vernon (played by Johnny Whitworth), someone described to us by Eddie as a former lowlife drug dealer who he hadn’t seen in 9 years, since the breakup of his first marriage. Said Vernon, lowlife former brother-in-law but in a suit now rather than the jeans and lumberjack shirt that Eddie’s in, asks Eddie’s about writing career.  And after getting past the excuses, Vernon gets Eddie to admit that he continues to be the same fogged-out struggling writer that Vernon remembered his sister had married (and dumped).

Well, Vernon offers Eddie a "solution."  It's a new drug that’s "going through clinical trials and soon will be legal." Eddie’s skeptical, Vernon claims that he’s legit even gives him a business card. They part ways with Eddie holding a one pill sample in his hand as well as Vernon's business card.

Not wanting to mess-up his life even further, Eddie’s more or less convinces himself that he’s not going take the pill even though he doesn’t let it go. As he enters his apartment building, however, he’s confronted by his landlord’s wife (apparently, he’s been late on his rent, big surprise...). In the course of the argument, he pops the pill. Some 10-20-30 seconds later suddenly everything around him starts coming into a surprising focus, and more importantly _his mind_ becomes super, super clear, even as it makes connections that he never would have thought of before.

Twenty minutes later, Eddie’s thoroughly turned the conversation around, helped his landlord’s wife on a _legal thesis_ that she had been struggling with using seemingly random strands from his memory, and even had pounding/triumphant sex with her in return (obscured by her laptop on her kitchen table). He goes home, discovers that this apartment is a dismal mess, quickly cleans it up and proceeds to type 90 brilliant pages for his book which he presents to his dumbfounded publisher the next morning.

Does a drug like this exist?  Speed comes to mind, but it makes people far more "edgy" than focused and has obvious and well known side-effects.  There are also prosac-class A.D.D. drugs out there that help people to focus better. But it is possible, even probable (given the potential) that more far potent drugs will exist in the future.
The rest of the movie, however, is actually (and _thankfully_) a _cautionary tale_ about the various unexpected consequences of starting to use such a drug: Since the drug (called NZT in the movie) was uncertified, it was by definition "underground." Its various inevitable side effects and addictive properties were unknown to Eddie. And Eddie was clearly not the only one who Vernon (and others) had offered the drug. So there were all kinds of unsavory underworld types, big and small, obvious and not so obvious, looking to get a hold of this drug and control its production and sale.

So Eddie gets his book and does manage to navigate the many hazards that present themselves, but there are _so many_ open-ended hazards presented in the movie that hopefully most people will set aside dreams of getting a hold of such a Faustian pill of forbidden knowledge.

Robert De Niro, playing a Wall Street mogul named Carl Van Loon, figures heavily in the second half of this movie. I mention De Niro here simply because in my opinion, Limitless is the second movie of arguably prophetic dimensions ("this is how the world works, or may work soon...") that I’ve seen him in, the first being his movie Wag the Dog.

Exaggerated as Wag the Dog was, it made the point that modern political campaigns involve far more than fund-raising, organizing armies of campaign workers to "get the vote out" or even running pointed/sleazy campaign ads.  Rather it involves manipulating the entire political terrain itself (to the point of creating an artificial crisis) for one’s candidate’s advantage. I put Limitless with its investigation of the future potential (and dangers) of various psychiatric drugs into such a prophetic category.

So, in summation Limitless is _definitely_ NOT "for the kiddies." Again, the violence as well as graphic if implied sex is bad enough, but it's mostly the subject matter. Why _this movie_ got a PG-13 rating, I can’t figure out. But it is for the parents. And if your kid, who’s never been able to put 2+2 together suddenly starts getting A+s, beware ...


A book touching a related subject to "limits", that of the nature of "self," is that of Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self (1997). In the book, Anderson explores the increasing fuzziness of the concept of "self" when people increasingly carry implanted, transplanted or completely bionic body parts, feel "more themselves" while on prosac than off of it, radically change career direction at least once or twice in their life, divorce and remarry and maintain multiple identities on the internet.

On the last point, that of maintaining multiple identities on the internet, Benedict XVI cautioned in his 2011 Message for World Communications Day that this can, in fact, become a new type of sin.

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