Limitless: The Supremacy of Spiel

For a long time now, intellectuals have been chipping away at the mythology of race and gender, while leaving the mythical quality of intelligence relatively untouched because they have too much invested in the hierarchies it produces…The effects of this belief in abstracted “intelligence” have been so widespread and pernicious that one hardly knows where to begin.
–“There Is No Such Thing As Intelligence

So, today I finally finished watching Limitless. I didn’t think I’d finish it, actually, since I was afraid of the ending, which, by all rights, should follow the book and show us the main character committing suicide. Instead, he defeats all of his enemies, weans himself off the smart drug, and sails off into the future. As my friend tomemos put it, “didn’t we get over endings like that sometime in the nineties?”

The most basic problem with this ending is that along the way Bradley Cooper commits murder, and regardless of whether or not the bad people chasing him deserve to die, according to basic dramatic logic he should also go down in flames. The film leaves the issue of the murder a little unresolved — since he blacks out on the smart drug, there’s some possibility that he’s not guilty — but it’s still fairly clear in both versions of the story that the nameless blond woman dies at his hands.

How come? After all, there’s still plenty of story if he doesn’t commit a murder: the drug exponentially increases the wiring in his brain; he rises to prominence in every field of human activity, eventually finding his natural calling in the world of financial speculation; a lot of people try to control or kill him, including financiers and gangsters. It’s like π [Pi], only with a drug instead of a number.

Basically, Bradley Cooper commits murder because the blonde is too much like himself, and he can’t bear what he is about to become. In the film, she is the only instance of nudity, but she’s never really nude: her body is a roughly adjacent series of different television screens, showing montages of body parts. She is a montage of pornographic fantasies, making love to a “smartness” fantasy. Nothing about her really belongs to her, since she has been constructed or at least over-written by the patriarchy — and nothing about Bradley Cooper really belongs to him, either, considering that his big move into finance involves recognizing that de Niro is going for a big energy merger, and helping him erase the kinks in the plan.

This is the horror, and also the mediocrity, of our blind attempts to use art to make sense of the information age. All we get for heroes are fast-talking spielers making “connections” between things, and those connections are already latent in the pervasive, thus imperceptible political structures that close tighter around Cooper with each new brilliant predictive leap he makes.

At the beginning of the film, Cooper tells us that, before the bad guys catch up to him, he was about to make his mark on the world. He was about to change things. Yet his program for change is shockingly generic. His campaign posters look like ordinary, dull campaign posters. His haircuts keep getting more and more bland — “I can’t get used to that haircut,” Abbie Cornish says teasingly.

When I was traveling in the northern part of Laos, I spent a day traveling by foot and inner tube down a wide, green, sparkling river. At one point everybody stopped, and those of us who were brave enough jumped from a steep bank into a deep swimming-hole, at the prompting of our guides. (At the climax of Cooper’s effervescent rise, he also jumps off a tall cliff, in some tropical location, into sun-jeweled water.) I was so frightened that everyone was about to give up on me, and at that moment I did rush toward the cliff, jumping right as my toes made contact with the mossy, muddy edge. It hadn’t rained there in days. The jumping point was muddy from other feet — all tourists — all writing, in water, their mark upon the world.