Early in the movie Limitless, we follow protagonist Eddie Morra as he shuffles aimlessly down a street in New York’s Chinatown. Observed from a distance, Eddie barely registers onscreen. He has a scraggly ponytail and a beat-up jacket. One hand is wrapped in grubby surgical tape. His attitude is at once hostile and cowering. He could probably use a shave, a shower, and a sandwich, but something more is wrong, something fundamental about Eddie himself. In voice-over, Eddie uses his career to explain his unsavory appearance: “What kind of guy without a drug or alcohol problem looks this way? Only a writer.”
In movies, writers are only slightly less morally repugnant than serial killers (unless the writer is a serial killer). According to Hollywood, writers are either parasites (Deconstructing Harry, Barton Fink, Capote, Misery); perverts (The Squid and the Whale, Adaptation, Wonder Boys, American Splendor); addicts (Permanent Midnight, Barfly, Leaving Las Vegas, Sideways), or sociopaths (La Piscine, Deathtrap, The Shining). They have monstrous egos and tiny, wizened hearts. Their moral compasses are permanently cracked; their personal relationships are cynically contrived to produce “experience,” which they feed to the insatiable maw of their craft. They are creatively constipated. They practice poor personal hygiene. They are not lovely to look at. It almost goes without saying that they are almost always male.
Eddie is played by Bradley Cooper, which means he never really looks that bad. But he exhibits all the signs of cinematic loserdom. He lives in a non-picturesquely disheveled walk-up, is late on the rent, drinks too much, and reeks of self-pitying desperation. When his ex-wife’s brother gives him a pill that will help him finish his novel, Eddie swallows it down without a second thought. This is not a man with a strong sense of self.
The pill works, and here’s where the movie gets strange—not because Eddie suddenly acquires powers of superconcentration and hyperproductiveness, but because of what happens to his writing. Within a week Eddie has finished his novel, but, compared to the amount of time the movie spends on a montage of self-improvement—our hero gets a haircut, cleans his apartment, bangs out a few sets of crunches at the gym, and is fitted for a new suit—this feat barely registers onscreen (a quick shot of a hefty stack of pages dropped with a thunk on his editor’s desk).
Limitless was written by Leslie Dixon (Freaky Friday, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Thomas Crowne Affair). The script began, as so many do, as a novel—in this case, a sci-fi thriller, or, as one Amazon reviewer breathlessly terms it, a “neuropsychopharmacological update of the Icarus myth”—named The Dark Fields by Irish writer Alan Glynn. To translate the book to the screen, Dixon simplified the plot, added some chase scenes, and multiplied the body count. When asked what Glynn thinks of the movie, Dixon said, “It’s not exactly to his taste, but, uh … he can pay off his mortgage.”
The idea of a pill that enables the quick and painless completion of a novel is obviously attractive—the idea of a pill that enables the quick and painless completion of an article is attractive—but inherent in that attraction, presumably, is the promise that the resulting manuscript be not entirely cringe inducing. If writers just wanted the ability to manically clean their apartments and babble confidently at cocktail parties, they’d spent their advances on coke (and some do). If writers just wanted to crank out some quasi-intelligible sentences as fast as possible, they’d write screenplays.
This is where Limitless extends its bad faith beyond its depiction of writers to the act of writing itself. The movie wants us simultaneously to believe that Eddie’s chosen career explains his slothlike behavior in the beginning of the film (writers are losers) and his eagerness to take questionable controlled substances (writers are addicts), while also understanding that his novel is what’s keeping him from reaching his full potential. (The pills he take allow him to access one hundred percent of his brain, as opposed to the 10 percent the rest of us poor hacks supposedly have to make do with.) And once the bodies start piling up, we shouldn’t be surprised, should we? (Writers are sociopaths.)
After Eddie turns in his novel, we don’t see him type another word. Having conquered that whole novelist thing, he’s on to brighter prospects or, as he cryptically puts it, “something bigger.” He doesn’t tell us what that something is, but it involves wearing white linen on a tropical island, trading large amounts of stock, sassing Robert DeNiro, driving recklessly, and possibly killing a girl he meets in a nightclub. Writing, like mid-afternoon drinking, is a bad habit he no longer has time for once he becomes a Wall Street player in an expensive suit and sticky hairdo. Judging from the fact we never hear mention of his novel again, it’s not a great sacrifice. Because this is the other Hollywood trope: every writer is a sellout.
What makes this all especially odd is that movies come from scripts, and scripts come from writers. While Hollywood’s depictions of most professions serve as shorthand character description (lawyers are sneaky, chefs are sexy, teachers are mousy and unassertive), you’d think writers might have a vested interest in portraying their own kind sympathetically. Of course, it’s possible that screenwriters hold such little clout that they can’t control what happens from the page to the screen. Or maybe screenwriters really think writers are losers—they’re the only people who wield even less power than they do.
In Glynn’s novel, Eddie is a copywriter for a small publishing house. His transformation from copywriter in the book to novelist in the movie may seem a small, but it’s significant. Copywriters, like screenwriters, are essentially wage workers, producing prose to fit someone else’s specifications. The idea of a copywriter abandoning his day job once he doesn’t need the paycheck is completely plausible; no one churns out copy for love of the craft. One assumes that a novelist will be more invested in the notion of his “career”—that he will continue writing—even as he pursues that “something bigger,” which, in Eddie’s case, turns out to be politics. But maybe Dixon knew better. In an interview promoting the film, she admitted to being “burned out” on screenwriting. After she finishes doing press for Limitless, she’s going to take some time off—to work on a novel.
Jennie Yabroff writes about art and culture for Newsweek.