THE BLOG
05/05/2014 02:36 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2014

A Rabbinic Take on 'Limitless'

The following review is part of the Kosher Movies project, in which Rabbi Herb Cohen gleans life lessons from the world of film.

I began to study Talmud seriously when I entered Yeshiva University, which had just started a program for college students who did not attend Jewish day schools. It was a challenging subject and at first I had very mixed success. My Talmud teacher summed it up when he wrote on my evaluation the following remarks: "Earnest and studious, has been plodding along with unusual diligence and, as a result, has made fine progress especially in his ability to master texts. Analytic grasp is still weak, tends to repeat some ideas mechanically without fully understanding them. But on the whole has made highly encouraging progress." Frustrated by my difficulty analyzing such complex material, I thought it would be wonderful to be able to take a pill and suddenly become an analytical savant. I did not do this, but Eddie Morra in the intense drama Limitless does.

Eddie Morra is a writer with writer's block. He has a contract with a literary agent but cannot summon the intellectual energy to write his book. His life is falling apart financially. His girlfriend rejects him, and he is threatened with eviction from his apartment. Things change, however, when he meets his ex-brother-in-law Vernon, who offers him a new brain drug that will get him out of his lethargy. Eddie takes it, feeling things can't get any worse, and experiences an intellectual epiphany. He sees everything with brilliant clarity and now is able to write freely. Immediately, he cranks out several hundred pages with ease and impresses his agent.

Eddie returns to Vernon, wanting more of the drug, which is called NZT48. Finding Vernon dead, he searches his apartment for the drug and finds cash and a large stash of NZT48. Overwhelmed with his new-found abilities, Eddie takes the pill regularly and quickly amasses huge amounts of money as a day trader on the stock market based on his uncanny ability to predict the success of many companies on the exchange.

His success in the market leads to a meeting with Carl Van Loon, a major player in the corporate merger world, who senses that Eddie can be a valuable member of his negotiating team in an upcoming merger deal. Meanwhile, Eddie's supply of NZT48 is dwindling, and Eddie is having relapses which stymie his smooth presentations to Van Loon. How Eddie tries to be sharp when his supernatural analytic skills are growing dull is the plot conceit that drives the story forward.

There is a mesmerizing conversation between Eddie and Van Loon, which highlights the different paths these men have walked to arrive at their current positions in life. Eddie's path is serendipitous: Carl's is deliberate. When Eddie informs Carl that he is looking to be on his own, Carl reminds him: "I mean you do know you're a freak? Your deductive powers are a gift from God or chance or a straight shot of sperm or whatever or whoever wrote your life-script. A gift, not earned. You do not know what I know because you have not earned those powers. You're careless with those powers, you flaunt them and you throw them around like a brat with his trust-fund. You haven't had to climb up all the greasy little rungs. You haven't been bored blind at the fundraisers. You haven't done the time. You think you can leap over all in a single bound. You haven't had to bribe or charm or threat your way to a seat at that table. You don't know how to assess your competition because you haven't competed." It is a classic case of the callow wisdom of youth pitted against the sage wisdom and experience of age.

There is an insightful comment about the perennial conflict between youth and age found in The Ethics of the Fathers. The Sages write: "He who learns from young men is like one who eats unripe grapes and drinks new wine from the winepress. He who learns from old men is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine." Clearly, Jewish tradition favors the learning from old men who combine the wisdom of life experience with intellectual power. Limitless showcases the smarts of youth and the acumen of age, and lets the audience see the virtues and faults of both.

Rabbi Herb Cohen was a principal at Jewish high schools across America for three decades. He now resides in Israel and blogs weekly about the intersection of faith and film at KosherMovies.com.