Last night I saw a film I hoped would be a dire parable about the power of the pharmaceutical industry. It was anything but that cut and dried.

Stories made for mass consumption can shape us: uplift, cheapen, or dumb us down. They can also take the pulse of our longings. “Limitless” starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro makes plain the limitless urges of 21st century man (sic).  Female characters reject the drug of choice in this story–an interesting message.

The central character, Eddie Morra, played by Bradley Cooper, is initially a mess–a disheveled writer with a book contract who can’t inscribe a word, pay his rent, or keep a girlfriend. A chance encounter brings him the gift of a clear, unmarked pill the gifter assures him is FDA-approved but not quite market-ready–and like nothing in the world for unleashing the power of the brain. Our stalled writer says no thanks, but since the gifter is an ex-inlaw, he pockets it anyway as his sharp-looking kin dashes off.

Eddie trudges home.  Next the miracle unfolds as he’s accosted and ripped a new one by the landlord’s wife. He surreptitiously pops the mystery pill and within seconds is using his whole brain. Soon he’s disarmed her anger, practically writes her paper for law school, and eventually they hit the sack. My favorite  part is after she leaves and he commences to clean his filthy hovel of an apartment (any woman will find her heart warmed). He then sits down and writes half his book. His editor, of course, is astonished. And wowed with the result.

The rest of the film is a pretty gripping though exhausting  tale of his efforts to maintain possession of a completely illegal, known only to a few, stash of NZT. When he’s on it, he’s brilliant and charming, amassing a fortune with co-star De Niro, jet-setting and winning back his girlfriend. Miss a dose, and he’s a brain-fogged, physically debilitated, bum.

The drug stops short of giving him sci-fi super powers, but it’s close. And that’s what I can’t figure out: what is the storyteller trying to say?  Eddie Morra commits murder–but it’s a trio of scuzzy bad guys and it’s in self-defense (sort of). There was another murder he might have done…but that was before he learned to handle dosage and was having periods of lost time and memory. Did he do it? Even he doesn’t know. A police line-up (rigged by his high-dollar lawyer) says no.

The character stays one to root for. Despite brokering millions, he remains in his tiny apartment and doesn’t buy a car. He stays in love with the same gal when he could and does (during their breakups) have anyone at all. He ‘s always a nice guy–chatting with waiters in their native tongue because he learned it in a day or so. He’s like you and me: trying to do right but unable to pass up an opportunity, getting sidetracked by lousy means to reach an end. And his goals are pretty lofty: ie, his book on the American psyche, and his ultimate-ultimate goal which I won’t blow for you.

Any minute it looks like Eddie will get his comeuppance.  Especially when he meets other NZT-addicts suffering horrendous side effects, just as Eddie’s faltering with them too. Ah ha, I thought–at last the allegory. No more “listening to Prozac,” the designer pill that was supposed to make us better and more productive people, but made us suicidal instead.

Now I’m afraid I am going to blow the ending because it’s what bugged me the most. Stop reading this if you want to see the movie and be surprised. Senator Morra prevails, trounces all double-crossers, keeps the chosen woman, and has his own protected supply of NZT forever. In the final scene where he bebops down the street to get some lunch, I said as the credits popped on, “Oh no.” 

Oh no, what?

Oh-no for one thing: still no Pharma Nazis to hate…no racist tones about underworld drug lords either, though. Presumably, Eddie makes only enough for himself–now is that nice? But what would you do?  There’s the rub–just one of them.

Oh-no because “now people will start thinking again that designer drugs to make us rich and smart are possible and okay.”  But guess what? Our brains are toxic, crimped, sad and broken. We could stand to have a lot more of our neural net up there free and available.

Guess what else? There already exist brain nutrients that will super-charge energy, reverse ADD and dementia, and dispel the depression that grips our world. But R-lipoic acid, acetyl-l-carnitine and DMAE are not exactly Hollywood. Nor are balancing hormones, changing your diet, or detoxification. (As my youngest teenager would say, “BORRR-ING!”)

Another form of already available brain food this film whizzed right by: the well-researched abilities of meditation to free up focus, relieve stress, boost energy and more.  But meditation is decidedly not the stuff of action films, primarily because it is also documented to increase a key element in the emotional brain:


What happens to high-octane ambition (even creative, public-service oriented, good-guy ambition) without compassion? The stabbings and wheeler-dealings of an intelligent action flick, I guess. Why wasn’t NZT worth it to the female characters? Do we have a tale here of the sterility of the male psyche under pressure from his patriarchal milieu?

Maybe–add the worship for American rugged individualism that cuts across gender and class. If Eddie had used his vast brain power to make NZT available to every human being, would he be a hero or another Iron Man in need of a villain to disturb the peace?

This film, in a bad economy especially, plays to our deepest longings to be the smartest bear in Jellystone Park. I confess to wanting Eddie Morra to succeed at every turn–and badly wanting his downfall too. That’s just par for a rags-to-riches story with plenty of questionable behavior on the way. But it pains me that for an extended time in a darkened theatre, I wanted what he had. I wanted some NZT!

“Limitless” illustrates a problem with living in a culture stripped of spirituality that is based on connection. The separation of brain from body…self from others…urban intrigue from the simplicity of nature…we’re alone, so fixation on self-made success reigns supreme. When we should be pulling together to stop stupid wars, create meaningful work for everyone and green the planet, we’re feeding on dreams of personal prowess to pull us above the fray.

What about the legitimate need to be and do all that one can be and do? “Limitless” provides a breathtaking escape into possibilities, but alas, the quest for money and power still defines the man. And the film isn’t even remotely allegorical about what the right drug could do for us. To date, all savior drugs have failed, we the people have massive prescription-pill addictions serving up catastrophes from unchecked weight gain to renal failure. I pray there is no one out there trying to make a real-life NZT. In the end, Nature knows best and can heal us into a truly whole process of becoming more. 

Earth to citizens! No man is an island. Women–generally the heart of the family and communitas–already know this. And the children? If we place any hope for them to wise up beyond our mistakes, “Limitless” is not a film for their brains to consume.