'Limitless,' Oprah, and Charlie Sheen: The Scary Side of Super-Sized Ambition

The new Bradley Cooper film, about a power-obsessed writer-turned-Wall-Street-trader, raises the question: Has individualism gone too far?


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Do we want too much? Now that blind ambition no longer carries the slightest taint and the term "sell-out" holds no meaning, now that earnest young men sing not of love but of "want(ing) to be a billionaire so frickin' bad," now that narcissistic outbursts and trips to rehab are tantamount to self-promotion, now that, on blogs and Facebook and Twitter, millions of self-branding voices cry out and are never silenced, now that reaching for the stars is encountered less, by young people, as euphemism than high-priority action item, it may be time to question, at long last, the reigning ethos of super-sized individualism.

This perspective manifests itself dramatically in the movie Limitless, where all-consuming ambition is depicted as a supreme blessing from on high, even as it seems to erase every trace of soul and human connection in those who are thusly blessed. A blocked writer named Eddie (Bradley Cooper) discovers a miracle drug that has him decluttering his apartment, then his life, and finally, using his drug-induced high-speed analysis to game the stock market. You'd imagine that such a twist would be a bit harder to cheer on in the wake of the financial meltdown than it was back in 2001 when Alan Glynn's entertaining novel, The Dark Fields, (on which the movie was based) was first published. Not so. As massive wealth transforms Eddie's life into a predictably dizzying merry-go-round of cheering on gigantic stock gains, clinking champagne glasses, jetting around the world, and impressing key members of the plutocracy, members of the audience are enlisted as cheering spectators to his meteoric rise.

What's notable about Limitless is not the manner in which Eddie uses and abuses his wealth (a tale as old as Midas), but the fact that Eddie treats the aggressive pursuit of excess as the only logical object of his new-found productivity. After finishing his novel in four days, aided by a drug-induced lightning-fast mind, he abruptly drops his interest in literature (borrring!) for the much more alluring and romantic life of... the day trader? Yes, instead of longing for creative self-expression or thirsting for spiritual freedom, what Eddie wants, most of all, is don a pin-striped suit and haunt somnambulant lunch joints in the financial district. In other words, even though we may roll out the piety in discussions of Bernie Madoff, Goldman Sachs, or Kenneth Lay, we still suspect that they're the smartest—and the luckiest—guys in the room. Joining the ranks of tech executives, professional athletes, oil moguls, and Wall Street high rollers at the depraved craps table of our culture and our economy is presumed to be a wet dream shared by the global populace.

Strange, that this fantastical film, which basks in excess and corruption without any major repercussions for our hero, plays less like a cinematic fable than a realistic snapshot of the times. With hand-wringing over the Great Recession finally subsiding a bit—even if the sickness that incited the economic collapse is far from cured—it's clear that the greatest American hero is not the honor-bound civic leader or the inspired artist or the thoughtful spiritual guide, but the self-serving entrepreneurial conquistador.

Tales of extreme overachievement dominated the Best Picture category at this year's Oscars, featuring strivers aggressively pursuing victory at the expense of friends, family, life, and limb, from The Social Network to The Fighter to 127 Hours to The King's Speech. "I was perfect," says Natalie Portman's ballerina character in Black Swan, secure that all of her suffering and sacrifice was worth it. Even the isolated and the doomed—Zuckerberg in his lonely perch at the top, Wahlberg's boxer hiding out with his girlfriend across town, the future king battling his own words in a drafty London apartment—are presented as odd sorts of modern victors.

Even when ambition is explored through the lens of exaggeration, parody, farce, or noir, it's still digested as inspiring, from the vainglorious proclamations of Lady Gaga to the semi-delusional chattering of Bravo's tireless self-branding reality stars. Television is filthy with high-capitalist morality plays, from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Boardwalk Empire, but the tragic characters therein are more often than not encountered as heroes. Raw drive is touted as the special sauce that makes the world go 'round on every reality show in existence, from Survivor, to Top Chef to even non-competitive experiments in self-branding like Bethenny Ever After and The Rachel Zoe Project. Warrior-speak is so much the common lexicon of reality TV that each on-camera confession could stand in for any other: She wants to win at all costs. He's not going to give up, no matter what. She doesn't care who has to eat dirt along the way. The parlance of high school football coaches and insurance salesman has become the native tongue of cable TV.

Not surprisingly, the Oprah Winfrey Network, which launched this year on New Year's Day, represents the most colorful and dramatic reflection of this nationwide will to power. An uneasy mix of individualism and enlightenment is offered on every show, from the motivational platitudes spouted by the aspiring talk show hosts of Your OWN Show to the exacting standards and relentless drive of Oprah herself in Oprah: Behind The Scenes. But nothing typifies Oprah's embrace of the creation myths of celebrities more than Oprah Presents Master Class, which presents first-person narratives of success by everyone from Diane Sawyer to Jay-Z. The show relishes a peculiar "I pulled myself up by my bootstraps" and "I had to believe in myself—and so should you!" mélange, blending self-actualization and capitalism into a queasy cocktail that goes down smoothly, thanks to the simple syrup of Oprah's "You go girl!" ideology.

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Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness, published by Riverhead Books in January 2011. She was TV critic at Salon.com for 7 years and co-created the cartoon Filler for Suck.com. More

Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness, published by Riverhead Books in January 2011. She was TV critic at Salon.com for 7 years and co-created the cartoon Filler for Suck.com. She has contributed to NPR's "All Things Considered" and has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, Washington Post's Book World and The Awl. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters.

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