by Gary Phillips

This is another in a series of irregular posts ruminating on the nature of writing. In this case I’m using a review of a recent movie to delve into the subject. Appropriately, the film’s main character is a writer. Limitless springs from the Rod Serling-Charles Beaumont-Philip K. Dick idea box. Though according to Wikipedia, props as well should be given to the grand master of science fiction, Isaac Asimov. It seems he penned a short story in the early ’80s for his eponymous sci-fi magazine titled “Least We Remember.” In the story, a middle management schlub at a pharmaceutical company takes an experimental drug that gives him total recall of everything he’s read or heard. Limitless is based on a sci-fi novel called The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn. It was in theaters earlier this year and I watched it over the past weekend on DVD.

This is the part where I tell you if you haven’t seen the flick, there’s going to be spoilers in this piece. Except according to a recent study by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego, they say that isn’t so. Conducted with various sets of undergraduates as their subjects, they used 12 different short stories on them—the ironic twist, the mystery and the so-called literary by highbrow types such as John Updike and Raymond Carver. For instance, some read Ambrose Bierce’s famous twist ending short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” A spy is about to be hanged on a bridge during the Civil War and, well, you should read the story.

According to Christenfeld and Leavitt’s study, to be published in Psychology Science, subjects knowing beforehand the reveal as us writers say in the trade, enjoyed this and the other stories more. “Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,” said Christenfeld in a press release. “Monet’s paintings aren’t really about water lilies,” he added.

Anyway, Eddie Morra, our protagonist who narrates Limitless, is a book writer. Eddie does have a book contract. Yet judging from the way he lives initially, he hasn’t bothered to use his advance on interior decorating tips in his cramped apartment in New York’s Chinatown. The film begins by showing us a haggard-looking Eddie, played by the handsome Bradley Cooper, who in the voiceover tells us he knows he looks like a drunk or drug addict, but he is neither. He is doing everything else but putting the words down. He’s got his contract looming over his head but is in the grip of the dreaded writer’s block. His world is literally seen through a blue filter. And his long-suffering girlfriend has just given him the heave-ho, while simultaneously she’s been made an editor at her publishing house.

Life sucks for Eddie. But out and about one day when he should be working, he runs into his ex-brother-in-law Vern. Ol’ Vern used to be a dealer and still is in a sense. He’s now pushing a wonder pill called for short, NZT. Vern claims the pill will allow Eddie to access far more than the 20% or our brain we’re said to use. Eddie takes the pill (which doesn’t make his head grow big like the big-brained Leader in Hulk comics) and suddenly his world is in full color with a golden tinge. It’s like he’s on super speed but this is a high if incredible awareness and control. He cleans up his dump and writes the killer opening chapter to his book, impressing the hell out of his editor. Of course the drug wears off and Eddie needs more. He goes back to Vern’s place, and Vern gets bumped off while Eddie is out on a errand. But Eddie finds Vern’s stash of NZT and we’re off to the races.


I found the film enjoyable and Cooper’s performance well-done. Like anybody else watching the movie, I imagined what my life could be like if I could take NZT. Enviously when Eddie secures dead Vern’s supply, he finishes his book in four days. As a writer I found it frustrating that certain logical avenues weren’t played out. I haven’t read Glynn’s book so I don’t know if he explored those avenues, or what particular avenues he entertained in his novel. And of course a screenplay, unless it’s a miniseries, has to truncate a lot for the sake of telling its story in filmic form. But as an example there’s a Russian mob type in the movie named Gennady. To fulfill his master scheme, part of which involves becoming a Wall Street high roller, Eddie borrows a hundred grand from the gangster given a regular bank won’t advance him that kind of scratch. Of course Gennady is not the kind of dude to send you a payment due letter—he’ll just bust your kneecaps with a ballpeen or slice off a finger or two so you won’t forget next time.

Gennady takes some NZT and he’s hooked. But rather than have him become the film’s Dr. Doom/Fu Manchu/Professor Moriarty rolled into one, he more or less stays the same except he starts dressing better. He wants more of the pills from Eddie but it’s very glaring how his character remains a bottom feeder. If the stuff makes you more ... you, wouldn’t Gennady be more ruthless? More devious in getting what he wants—money and hot babes at the least I would presume. Now it’s Eddie’s film, so the focus is on him, but couldn’t there have been a scene with Gennady like that cat in the Direct TV ad where everything is gold and he has a little miniature gold giraffe for a pet he kisses. Okay, not the little giraffe, but you get my point. Or better, Gennady has been influenced by the commercial and becomes obsessed with using his new brainpower to miniaturize animals.

Or for that matter where’s the shadowy board of the Big Pharma company that makes this pill? At the minimum the quietly menacing enforcer or odd research scientist of this entity would show up, studying the results of their handiwork, planning to make NZT available on a controlled basis to movers and shakers so as to shape the world to their liking. There’s a character in Limitless who at first I took to be this person, but he turned out to be something of a red herring.

The reveal happens a year later in the movie. Eddie’s book, self-referentially titled Illuminating the Dark Fields, is a smash and he’s running for the senate. Presumably after he wins that office, he’ll make a run at the presidency. Christenfeld may be right about plot not meaning that much, but I don’t need to take no NZT to know a strong plot helps bring all the elements of storytelling together for a satisfying conclusion. Too, their study be damned, I want to enjoy the twists, the resolution of the mystery as I come to those sections. I blame those results on them Internets and the era of instant gratification.

And for the record, let me state though I’d love to take just a few tabs of NZT so I could finished up a few books and a screenplay or two, I’m happy it doesn’t exist. Could you imagine Michelle Bachman on it?! Oh the horror ... the horror ...

Gary Phillips' latest is Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, a collection of his short stories.


Moral of the story: do more acid.

2011-08-17 by Tony Chavira

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