Has there been some secret value to a flipped-out Charlie Sheen declaring himself the Nietzschean uebermensch, living by a porn star code that mere mortals could only hope to appreciate?
I would say yes. In his little henpecked heart, every man would love to stand on top of a building waving a machete against the world. The cubicle chorus of a billion Internet clicks equates to an army of sad Dilberts who are mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore, even if they feel that they have to.
This outlaw fantasy plays out splendidly in Neil Burger’s Limitless. A former in-law hooks slacker writer Bradley Cooper on a steroid for the mind. It’s the best drug he has ever taken, giving him super-smarts, perfect recall, tiger blood and Adonis DNA. Rather than waste his sudden greatness on rooftop machetes, he makes better use of his energy – conquering the stock market and becoming the hotshot deputy of investment banker Robert DeNiro. But success is never an orphan. He attracts an unwanted following of strangers, crooks, and corpses.
Limitless begins with Bradley Cooper contemplating a leap from the penthouse of a high-rise apartment building. Based on previous experience, I might have considered this the perfect beginning to a movie. Fortunately, Cooper sticks around and proves me wrong. Too often he has fallen too easily in relying on Adonis DNA and hanging out in the heartthrob category. Here, he’s an inviting lift to Burger’s trippy direction and script (no one speaks that way, but everyone wishes they could speak that way).
Burger–whose “The Illusionist” was a surprise 2006 hit–emulates the shape and vim of Darren Aronofksy’s early druggy films. With Pi, it shares the central conceit of characters searching for mathematical routes to perfection. With Requiem for a Dream, it shares the junkie fantasy of ecstasy.
However, the overreach of Aronofsky’s Icaruses always anticipates their eventual falls. Instead, Burger tries something different, bordering on innovative. Its faux optimistic ending seems like a comment on the steroid era of American life. It leaves us with both the exhilaration of a man beating the machine and the uncomfortable suspicion that all success is creepily artificial.