Sunday, March 20, 2011
TRIPPIN' OFF THE POWER: LIMITLESS AS AN AYN RAND FANTASY ON BLOW
I saw Limitless the other day, and reviewed it for Tor.com. Like I said in the review, it's well-made, and Neil Burger is a technically skilled filmmaker; I may be one of about five people who liked his magician movie, The Illusionist, which was unfortunate enough to be released right around the time as Chris Nolan's very similar—and more cynical—variation, The Prestige. And, like I said in the review, Limitless has no pretense to being anything more than a white-guy whack-off-in-your-hat picture. It'd be easy to dismiss it as “just a movie,” a harmless little piece of manly fluff, if it wasn't glorifying something that really shouldn't be.
When the movie was over, I tweeted “Limitless is to cocaine what Atlas Shrugged is to libertarianism,” an analogy that occurred to me not just because there's not just one movie of Atlas Shrugged coming out soon but three of them, which means that shithead teenagers of all ages will be walking around chanting “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for another man's sake, nor ask another man to live for mine” and equating income tax to armed robbery. Beyond the exasperating prospect of another wave of popularity for Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged shares with Limitless a moral carelessness and blithe disregard for the consequences of the thing they each advocate.
Neither comes right out and says that they advocate cocaine or libertarianism, leaving their audience to either extrapolate or insist that extrapolation is a flawed interpretation. In Atlas Shrugged's case, Randians will talk your motherfucking ear off about how Ayn Rand wasn't a libertarian, she hated libertarianism, and if you disagree with her about anything you're a “looter” or a “moocher” and should kill yourself. I fell under her spell when I was 17, because I was 17 and didn't know anything, but gradually learned things and read more books and realized that the thing is, it's not that her villains are straw men, it's that in real life the kind of men that get her all aroused—industrialists, bankers, white guys in suits—bear a hell of a lot more resemblance to her villains, sniveling incompetent fuckfaces who rely on government policy for their existence than they do her heroes, these chiseled, sexy, taciturn geniuses. What's worse, and what leads us back to Limitless, is that Rand implies that merely agreeing with her philosophy gives one entry to a self-selecting elite, that throwing around John Galt quotes essentially makes you him. While she herself would likely disapprove of people paying lip service to her philosophy without living it, the fact of the matter is that a great many of her supporters do just that. It plays, especially now, into a sense that many white American men have that their status as the big dogs is being usurped by various Others.
Limitless presents us with a hero who has many of the benefits conferred by being born into the privileged classes. Bradley Cooper, in spite claiming to not have a drug and alcohol problem nonetheless seems to pass the time indulging in daytime drinking and bragging about this great novel he's writing that he can't even explain to the civilians in the bar. In spite of the fact that we see him drinking the afternoon away on multiple occasions, it's not that he has a drinking problem. He has an entitlement problem. He wants to be a writer without writing. He wants to be rich, he doesn't want to get rich.
When girlfriend Abbie Cornish “cruelly” dumps him because she's a grownup and he has his head up his ass, instead of this serving as a wake-up call Bradley Cooper wanders the streets moping, until he runs into his ex-wife's coke dealer brother. And holy shit is this guy ever a fucking coke dealer. His haircut's a couple years out of fashion, he's wearing a stupid scarf, his voice sounds like he's been smoking cigarettes since the age of five, basically the kind of guy no one would ever talk to unless he had coke. He makes concerned noises at Bradley Cooper's plight, and offers him a “free” sample of this brand-new shit he's got (“man, this shit isn't like normal shit, bro, this shit is special bro, this shit'll make your dick hard 24 hours a day, you'll ejaculate platinum, you'll have to fuck five bitches at once because one won't be enough bro” etc etc).
Because Bradley Cooper wants something for nothing, he takes the pill, which for all the movie's insistence that it's a fictional drug, is totally cocaine. Except, it actually does what cocaine makes you think it does: it turns you into a genius and the most fascinating person in the world. Bradley Cooper, while “coked” up, fucks his landlord's hot Asian wife, so naturally he wants more.
The remainder of the movie is about Bradley Cooper confronting every conceivable obstacle but simply being too awesome to be defeated by any of them. He borrows money from the Russian Mob and forgets to pay them back? They don't kill him. He decides to take on the capricious beast that is stock trading? He makes a couple million bucks in a week and a half. A possibly sinister Evil White Guy in a Suit—played by Robert fucking De Niro, no less—basically tells him, “You work for me or I'll destroy you?” Meh, he just straight up owns De Niro, a sad sight considering the degree to which Bobbert used to rule.
It's a little annoying—if not entirely inaccurate—how the whole world, including Abbie Cornish (who gets all squirmy when she sees him speak Italian in his new slick haircut) worships Bradley Cooper as a god the second he starts making money. Sure, that's the way it is in real life, but the fact that it all hinges on Bradley Cooper being coked up is what makes it a little weird. It ties into the movie's weird solipsism, itself a reflection of a tendency in society, whereby improvement of self improves the entire universe, because the self is all.
If this had led in any real way to Bradley Cooper realizing that the megalomania the drug induces is illusory, and the act two-to-act three turn hinged around him making an effort to get clean and solve his problems without the drug, Limitless would be a more satisfying movie. I'm not saying everything has to be AA, 12-step shit, it's just that getting clean is fucking hard. Bradley Cooper does so—really abruptly—right before the denouement, except he retains all the powers the drug conferred, and because the drug totally fucking is cocaine, the movie's message ends up being “do coke! You'll fuck models, wear exquisitely tailored clothes, have a thousand dollar haircut, fuck models, be able to reduce Robert De Niro to a quivering, stuttering mess, get the girl, fuck models on the side, speak every language on Earth fluently, exert predictive control over inherently unpredictable systems like stock markets, and run for President! Oh, and you'll fuck lots of models!” There are no consequences whatsoever.
Movies are a lot more satisfying when the good guy wins. But is Bradley Cooper really a good guy in Limitless? Without the fancy-schmancy SF future coke he's flying on the whole movie, he's an intertia-paralyzed impotent fucking pussy who in spite of being an utter incompetent has a book contract and an extremely indulgent editor. He's no underdog. People who get book contracts without writing books first are, by definition, privileged. They have already had the whole world gift-wrapped for them. When you have the levers of power in your hands and you still can't be bothered to pull them, you are a fucking putz. So we're supposed to be all “Yeah, dawg, you go bro” just because Bradley Cooper takes a performance-enhancing drug and dominates the world of finance? Fuck that shit.
One funny thing about the two different male fantasies offered in Limitless and Atlas Shrugged is that they were both written by women. Leslie Dixon, in scripting Limitless, was working from a book written by a man (which I haven't read and thus obviously can't comment on), so maybe this doesn't mean anything. If someone gets all fluttery and submissive around some guy because she chooses to, hey, have at it. It's not as if some guys aren't totally fucking awesome. But enabling an ignorant, narrow, worship of self creates more dumb, blinkered, solipsists. It begets “well, fuck you, if you're not born with a silver spoon in your mouth I'm not going to give you five cents for a plastic one.” It supports the way of thinking that Mr. Show fucks in the ass in the following clip:
It's not how much you have. It's how you got it.
Actions have consequences. If you dismantle the government and require everything to be subject to the caprices of the market, only people who are already rich will ever have anything (at least until the poor unite and overthrow them). And if you get strung out on coke, you do not become Neo. You end up crying to yourself at 7 o'clock in the fucking morning with a nosebleed that won't go away, wondering where all that cool stuff and money and all those friends went. And a member of the most privileged class on the planet getting one over on the system is nothing special. You might as well venerate a dog for licking his balls, because that's a perfect metaphor for Limitless.
(Postscript/disclaimer: this is not directly the fault of any of the creative talent involved in Limitless. It's society that's sick, they're just holding the mirror, whatever their motivation.)