“What would you do if you were, like, the smartest guy in the world, bro?”
“I dunno, bro, maybe, like, learn to speak a bunch of different languages so that I could bang foreign chicks? Then I’d work out how to count cards and learn to predict the stock markets, and, and, I dunno, maybe learn the piano?”
“Shit yeah son, the piano is hella smart! Hey, let me get another hit on that beer bong.”
That, I like to imagine, is how the early script meeting went for Limitless, a stupid film for stupid people about what it must be like to be the smartest guy in the world. Or maybe a stupid film for slightly smarter people about what it would be like to be a douchebro convinced by the magic of chemistry that he’s way smarter than he actually is? Right at the start Bradley Cooper claims that he has a four-digit IQ and I’m pretty sure that’s medically insane – so either he’s dangerously deluded and it’s a cautionary fable, or nobody working on the film really cared either way. It’s confusing, but the one thing I think we can all agree on is that anyone who found Limitless aspirational is not a guy you want to make eye contact with in a bar.
Limitless is a film about a hopeless non-writer with an inexplicably hot (ex)-girlfriend who lucks his way into a stash of drugs that make him hella smart. You don’t need to know the science part, but it’s instructive that the film falls back on the old ‘It lets you use 100% of your brain instead of 20’ trope, because it shows you just how lazy the writing is – TL;DR, the brain is insanely metabolically expensive, and there is no way evolution would allow gigantic parts of it to go unused. And so anyway what the drug actually does is to allow Bradders to instantly recall and systematize everything he’s ever learned, as well as…I’m not sure, be really observant, like Sherlock Holmes or Spider-Man? Bradders, of course, knows that with great power comes great responsi…no, I’m joking, he uses it to have sex with strangers and make a load of money and mansplain things so well that people actually like him for it, all while making a series of non-financial calculations so a) Stupid or b) Morally questionable that you have to figure this is going to play out as a tragedy. Spoilers: it fucking doesn’t.
Please understand: this is a wish-fulfilment fantasy about what idiots think it’s like to be clever. If the Coopster’s command of foreign languages isn’t enough (he uses it entirely to talk to wait staff), look at the bit where he impresses a bunch of hedgefund managers with some trivia he’s memorised off Wikipedia: it sounds clever, it has big concepts and words in, and so everyone likes him. There’s even a scene where it emerges that he can fight impossibly well because he once watched some Bruce Lee films and a bunch of self-defence videos. Take that, thousand-year-tradition of martial arts: all we need now is those chemist assholes to get themselves in gear, and those hours we spent flipping through YouTube are going to pay off like gangbusters. He doesn’t once do anything that really redefines the boundaries of intelligence, like invent a radically more efficient hydrogen-powered engine or cure cancer or come up with a grand theory of physics that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics: he’s too busy banging chicks. He’s Will Hunting with a forty dollar haircut and absolutely no empathy, and by the end (spoilers!) he’s a senator on the road to becoming president. Oh, and in case you’re worrying that he might learn something, he even gets the girl back.
But why am I talking about this here?
Here’s why: because the moral of Limitless is that you should never worry about changing yourself, or trying hard at anything. It is a film about how you are already awesome, and everyone else is an asshole for not realising that. “It works better if you’re already smart,” explains the drug dealer who gives Bradders the pill: this is why he triumphs over all the other people who take it and why you, the viewer, don’t need to worry about applying yourself to anything and settling in for the long grind. Consider that, at the start of the film, Coops The Novelist has not written one fucking word of a book that he has already somehow been paid an advance for: not a shitty first draft, not a couple of chapters, not anything. He’s waiting, you see, for inspiration to strike, and fuck Stephen King and Anthony Trollope for suggesting that just sitting down and writing some words might be a better idea. You are special, goes the message: you already have everything you need, locked away deep inside you. You just need to find the right PUA forum/get really into nootropics/buy a workout plan that wasn’t designed by assholes, and then you can finally get started and show everyone. “It works better if you’re already smart.” Of course it does.
The problem with Limitless is the same as the problem with the Matrix, and Wanted, and every other male fantasy film where the hero gets something for nothing and also the girl: nothing in life works like that. The real-life science is piling up to confirm what real-life smart people already know: the grind that it takes to achieve real-life things is probably more important than the things themselves. Maybe one day someone will invent a pill that lets you learn Italian, or teaches you kung fu, or gives you flawless eight-pack abs, but that barely matters, because the process of getting there will teach you to get better at other things. At the very least, it might teach you not to be an asshole. But, of course, the only person who comes close to delivering this lesson in the film is Robert DeNiro, and (spoilers!) Bradley puts a stop to that shit by bankrupting his company and predicting that he’s going to have a heart attack.
Limitless is an awful film, but don’t feel awful if you liked it. Instead, please remember that nothing worthwhile comes without effort, and that the effort itself builds its own rewards. That starting something, today, is better than waiting for the perfect conditions before you tidy your room or do some situps or sit down to write your masterwork. And that, someday, there might be a pill that makes you smarter: but by starting right now, you’ll be way ahead of the assholes that take it. Oh, and: you don’t need to be a genius to play the fucking piano.
HOMEWORK: Read Angela Duckworth’s ‘Grit’, a beautiful book about the power of struggle that defines genius as ‘Working towards excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being.’ Tidy your room. Do a one-minute plank. Write some words. Don’t worry about whether you’re already smart: it works either way.