Atlas Drugged: 'Limitless' and the Libertarian Fantasy Hero

An amalgam of Ayn Rand philosophy and evolutionary psychology, Limitless endorses the ungenerous, predatory mood ascendant in America.


Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish, Andrew Howard, Anna Friel
Distributor: Fox
Rated: PG-13
Year: 2011
Release date: 2011-07-19

What would you do if you could suddenly use 100 percent of your brain? Write a symphony? End hunger? Cure cancer? Not if you’re Eddie Morra, a novelist struggling with writer’s block who blunders into a stash of NZT, a drug that sends his IQ soaring.

The first dose has barely awakened Eddie’s slacker synapses before he drafts a personal manifesto for economic solvency, his own “Path to Prosperity” that starts with the seduction of his landlord’s wife. Within a few weeks he conquers the stock market.

When his uncanny ability to make a huge return on his investments comes to the attention of modern robber baron Carl Van Loon (Rober DeNiro), Morra (Bradley Cooper) forms an uneasy alliance with the crafty old trader. After a detour involving a Russian loan shark and romantic complications with his off-again, on-again, off-again girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish), the film climaxes with a battle of wits between protégé and mentor.

While the relationship between Morra and Van Loon might recall Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s commentary on '80s excess, Limitless is no morality tale. An amalgam of Ayn Rand philosophy and evolutionary psychology, the film robs the plot of its ethical dimensions and endorses the ungenerous, predatory mood ascendant in America, reflected in the rise of the Tea Party and the mainstreaming of extreme libertarian tenets.

Limitless avoids overt political statements; nevertheless, Morra’s rise lampoons the left-leaning artist by showing that bohemians will take a piece of the action if given the opportunity. NZT empowers users not only by augmenting their reasoning abilities, but also by making available everything they’ve ever learned, read, or viewed. For Morra, that includes the desultory cultural diet of the progressive dilettante: “Information from the odd museum show, a half-read article, some PBS documentary”.

Evidently the documentary wasn’t Frontline’s The Madoff Affair. Morra’s drug-fueled ambition brings with it no impulse to use his new powers for the benefit of others. He becomes neither a nerdy brainiac searching to understand the universe, like Stephen Hawking, nor a medical do-gooder like Albert Schweitzer, but rather an alpha male whose instincts for self-preservation and self-promotion suffuse all decisions that emerge from his fully allocated brain. Equally adept at finance and fistfights, at picking stocks and picking up women, Morra exhibits his super powers as one evolutionary adaptation after another.

Sure, Morra’s no monster (neither is Paul Ryan). He offers medical advice to his relatives, learns to play the piano, and feels remorse when he fears he’s killed a woman after binging on NZT. Still, all his actions remain subordinate to his new sense of purpose, or “rational self-interest”, to quote Rand. Indeed, NZT—by heightening the senses, and enabling users to see patterns in nature and human behavior—suggests a world knowable through logical thinking and close observation, one of the premises of Objectivism, Rand’s philosophical system.

That said, Limitless is a blast to watch. Dazzling effects render NZT’s impact on Morra. Multiple Eddies fill the frame, capturing his frenzied, yet focused multi-tasking. Glowing letters fall from the ceiling and form words as he writes his novel in two NZT-stoked sittings. Numbers tick over in the ceiling panels as he works out an algorithm for turning $12,000 into over $2 million in just a few days. Mise-en-abyme effects hint at the infinite possibilities opened up by the drug, as well as Morra’s burgeoning ego. The camera plunges forward in an unwavering line, passing down sidewalks, through crowds and buildings, mimicking Morra’s dizzying drive to know.

Cooper clearly relishes the role and makes the NZT-addicted Morra impossible to hate. Deploying his wit and boundless confidence, Morra pulls in the audience along with everyone he meets on screen—traders and cocktail party guests alike. When Morra enjoys some pâté before his initial meeting with Van Loon, the recent acquaintance who’s set up the sit-down stresses at the show of nonchalance. “Have a toast point”, Morra says dismissively. When Van Loon comments on his arrogance, Morra quips, “I don’t have delusions of grandeur; I have a recipe for grandeur”.

DeNiro’s Van Loon is a good foil for Morra, and his cynical lectures complement the younger man’s bravado, but Lindy and the other supporting characters cause Limitless to drag. So one-dimensional is the Russian loan shark who extorts NZT from Morra that, although he brags about how the drug has augmented his English vocabulary, his thick accent and inability to use articles persist—traits without which his hackneyed character couldn’t exist.

As far-fetched as the premise of Limitless is, in the current frosty political climate mirrored so well in the film, the specter of a culture facing the Hobson’s choice of domination by a ruthless merger and acquisitions veteran or a super-genius acting in his, not our, self-interest, seems utterly believable.

Extras include an inferior alternate ending that was wisely shelved in favor of the theatrical one, and a very short making-of featurette, “A Man without Limits”, worth watching for costume designer Jenny Gering’s discussion of dressing pre- and post-NZT versions of Morra.


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