'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?


Many Rivers Productions

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.


Reuters/Rick Wilking

And while egocentric implosions were commodified long before Charlie Sheen cranked his delusions of grandeur up to 11, it's notable how swiftly the star's sociopathic flameout has been translated into a multi-tiered product launch—including a t-shirt line and a not-so-magical, death-of-mystery tour called the "Violent Torpedo of Truth." (We get the "violent" part, anyway.) Sure, it's a familiar story: Man loses job. Man lets loose grandiose, nonsensical tirade. Man is besieged by army of marketing yes men who set big, stupid wheels in motion overnight. How else to keep the Cristal and the high-priced hookers flowing? But has there ever been a time when merely grabbing the public's attention, largely for negative reasons, translated so rapidly into a merchandising blitzkrieg?

But it doesn't take star status to broadcast your aspirations to the world. The average Joe's focus on international success has never been quite so well documented as it is today. On Facebook and Twitter, on blogs and author websites and work profiles, individuals lay out their agonizingly detailed goals for the future with reckless abandon, taking pains to document every ego reward along the way. One author recalls the "transcendent moment" when she learned that Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote to tell her that her book was "destined to be deeply loved." "I still feel intoxicated by her words," the author gushed. Another author recently tweeted, "Yay! Just found out my paperback hit the bestseller lists in Boston, Denver, & SF. That's a happy Monday!" It's enough to make you nostalgic for the days when patting oneself on the back and other forms of self-stroking were reserved for sticky private rooms, far from the public gaze. Even the self-proclaimed enlightened elite don't seem to recognize the value of shame. One social media guru recently tweeted, "I have never, in my life, lived more honestly than I am living today." Please, consider living a little less honestly.

Who's to blame for this state of affairs? Some point to the toxic overindulgence of helicopter parents, who pumped up their children's egos without exposing them to the hardships of an unscheduled afternoon with nothing but to do but make mud pies in the backyard. Others conjure the overachievement culture incited by Tiger Moms (and dads), who create children whose Suzuki scales are as impressive as their panic attacks and acid reflux. But the concept that a rising GNP lifts all heavily-mortgaged boats founds its roots in Reaganomics, and extreme ambition hasn't loosened its death-grip on our culture since. Considering the economic rollercoaster ride of the last few decades, the obvious lack of long-term job security in this country, and the fact that, according the Economic Policy Institute, during the past 20 years, 56 percent of all income growth went to the top 1 percent of households, it's impossible for most Americans, whether working or middle class or even upper middle class, not to fixate somewhat unhealthily on finding true, lasting financial peace of mind. Instead of giving in to learned helplessness (the most logical choice, really), we cling more tightly to the myth of upwardly mobile miracles, telling ourselves pretty success stories in order to keep hope alive.

Ultimately, Limitless takes the precise shape that you'd expect from a powerless person's fantasy of power. The moral of the story seems to be that, with a few shortcuts and some help from important people, money, status, and happiness can be yours, with no emotional cost to pay on the back end. But as our world spirals closer to the moronic self-involvement of Mike Judge's Idiocracy mixed with the commercialized nightmare of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, what's lost, beyond simple good taste, is our connection to our own desires. After soaking in so many real-life tales of success and parables of excess like Limitless, it's easy to lose sight of the joys of working steadily toward a goal without undue fixation on the monetary rewards or prestige it might bequeath. Savoring the means over the ends, relishing the challenges, the wrinkles, the obstacles involved in your craft: the rewards of a dedication to something beyond the ego may be a difficult message to impart, but it's a message that needs to find its way back into our fables, our creation myths, our journalism, and into the stories we tell ourselves.