Although Limitless (2011) ultimately winds up as a cautionary tale about drug addiction, it begins with a revealing portrayal of the shame and self-loathing to be found in depression, as well as the manic flight into omnipotence of thought that characterizes bipolar disorder.
Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a down-on-his-heels writer whose girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) dumps him during one of the opening scenes. He may have secured an advance from his publisher for a new novel but has been unable to write a single word of it. His apartment is a disaster and physically, Eddie looks a mess.
Disgusted with himself, he believes Lindy has made the right decision. “Why stick it out? I’d clearly missed the on-ramp. We both knew what was beckoning: the lower bunk in my childhood bedroom in Jersey.” In other words, he is filled with shame and feels like a total loser, a lost cause.
In these opening scenes, I felt fascinated by Limitless because Eddie’s psychological dynamics resemble those of one of my own clients, also a writer, who I’ve described in a post on psychotherapy issues to be found in bipolar disorder for my After Psychotherapy site. Like Eddie, my client suffered from profound feelings of shame; like Eddie, he could barely take care of himself, and when depressed, let his apartment deteriorate into a “pigsty.”
Like my client used to feel, Eddie is hopeless about ever doing anything to improve himself or his lot in life. These dynamics form the heart of one of the varieties of depression; coupled with the search for magical solutions to internal damage, they make up half the clinical picture found in bipolar disorder.
Speaking of magical solutions: Eddie runs into his former brother-in-law, Vern, who provides him with an experimental drug, NZT-48, that will allow him to access the full capacity of his brain. During the encounter with Vern, Eddie seems depressed but once the drug kicks in, it’s like mania. Suddenly, he’s a completely different person.
Like someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, Eddie takes manic flight from his depression, going into overdrive and cleaning his entire apartment, then writing a major portion of his novel in one sitting. My own client had very similar dynamics: during his manic phases, he believed he’d finally become the ideal person he’d always wanted to be, triumphing over his problems; he’d write 20, 30 or 40 pages of his novel in one go, only to discard it as worthless when he dropped back into depression.
Eddie, by contrast, really has become the ideal person he’s always wanted to be — “enhanced Eddie,” as he refers to himself. He finishes his novel in four days. He learns to play the piano in three, and becomes fluent in any language just by listening. He knows “everything about everything.” Talk about omnipotence of thought! And most important: “All my fear, all my shyness … gone.” It reminds me of claims people made when Prozac first came to market, that the drug made them into a different person altogether, the person they were meant to be.
In the earlier parts of the film, the state of mind induced by NZT strongly resembles a manic episode. Not only is Eddie hyperactive, but he increasingly puts himself at risk, driving dangerously fast along narrow city streets, jumping off a cliff into the ocean with no idea of what lurks beneath the surface, engaging in promiscuous sex. “If I wasn’t moving forward, I felt like I was going to explode.” One of the other characters accuses him of having “delusions of grandeur,” and when Eddie says it’s “time somebody shook up the free world and got things done,” he certainly sounds grandiose.
From here on, the movie becomes a formulaic thriller and a not-terribly-interesting parable about the dangers of drug addiction. You can also find an allegory about Big Pharma and how it hooks us on psychotropic drugs while concealing their toxic side effects. (For those who are interested, I’ve discussed those issues on my After Psychotherapy site, in a series of three posts about the dubious science behind the theory that mental illness results from a chemical imbalance; the myth that psychiatric medications have led to improvements in mental health outcomes, and the severe side-effects of SSRIs and other drugs.)
As the movie continued to unfold, I felt disappointed in Limitless; it seemed to take a very interesting premise, with an insightful portrait of depression and drug-induced mania, but ultimately ended as a bland tale about addiction and the lengths to which people will go in order to feed their habit.
Photo by Pedro Simoes, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.