In many a tragic play, hubris – pride – is punished. In Shakespeare, Macbeth is brought low by his royal ambitions and King Lear is struck down by his arrogance. Adam and Eve, wanting to be gods, succumb to the serpent’s temptation. The builders of Babel see their mighty edifice crash down, with God rendering their languages mutually unintelligible. These, along with many films and literary works since then, reinforce our sense of boundaries, reminding us never to transgress them lest we suffer the consequences.
Yet in Limitless, we have someone, Eddie Morra, who oversteps his boundaries – taking the pill that enhances mental capacity and ability – but never gets his due. He never incurs the wrath of the gods, and never experiences a Fall whatsoever. By the end of the movie, Eddie’s pretty much set in his ways, with him owning the pill factory. As though to underscore his triumph, the film ends with Eddie ordering food in a foreign language. His girlfriend looks at him partly disbelievingly, partly amazed, to which he responds coolly, “What,?” as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
Of course, it’s not as if Eddie didn’t have difficulties along the way. We see him get addicted to the drug, experience the symptoms of withdrawal, lose his abilities, and risk losing his lucrative job. During one of his highs, where he blacks out, he kills a girl. Later on, this man takes to following him around and the criminal kept pestering him for more of the pills. I thought that both would somehow serve as his punishment – for taking the drug, for killing that girl, and/or for simply stepping out of bounds.
But Eddie never gets it. He never gets caught for the girl’s murder/homicide, not that there was any investigation. It turns out that his pursuer simply wanted to get his stash of drugs; he gets to kill the criminal, and when a more formidable opponent takes him on – Robert Deniro’s character – he still trumps him. By the end, Eddie’s smart, rich, powerful, and on his way to have more where those came from.
One can either lament or celebrate this. And such ambivalence is rooted in the fact that Eddie Morra is our hero and protagonist. We naturally root for the bida but what if the bida is addicted to the success ethic? What if he is greedy? Should we have his sympathies then? Would we want him to overcome the conflict?
Our answer will depend on whether and to what extent we sympathize with his plight and values. On one extreme, if one thinks that addiction to success and greed ought to be punished, the fact that this doesn’t happen is cause for lament. The film is a powerful indictment of greed – it can kill you – whose depravity takes the gruesome form of drinking human blood to survive. Hints of the cannibalistic and the predatory here. But while we may disapprove, we can no longer rely on a certain sense of justice, one in which success addicts and greedy people get their comeuppance. People like Eddie Morra are here to stay, and if someone like Robert Deniro can’t take him on, there’s nothing we can do but to live with it.
On the other extreme, if we root for Eddie and think there’s really nothing wrong with what he’s doing, apart from his killing someone, then the movie is a cause for celebration. The protagonist succeeds. He may drink human blood, but he had to, for he had to survive. In this vein, the film wouldn’t be an indictment of greed at all, but a celebration of it – how it triumphs against the odds and how cool it would be to be rich and powerful like him.
There could be responses in between, but as far as these two go, I think it’s more of the former. I do see the film as a powerful assault against greed and the success ethic. It ends with a man who’s got it made, but is sick and drugged deep down. It is as though addiction has become normal. At the same time however, the severity of the criticism is muted by resignation at the end. We may indeed disprove of the Eddie Morras of the world, but there’s nothing we can do about it. They’re too smart, powerful, and rich. This – how hubris ultimately goes unpunished – is yet another symptom of our jaded sensibility,
At any rate, the ambivalence is not just about character preference. I do not know the political orientation of the screenwriter Leslie Dixon, but the choice of whether to sympathize with Bradley Cooper’s character is also a vote for or against the kind of finance that Wall Street did in recent years, one which unraveled in 2007, and whose effects many people are still feeling and suffering from today.