Maybe what the streaming space really needed was “The Goop Lab” for boys.
That’s among the thoughts provoked by “Limitless With Chris Hemsworth,” a new documentary series on Disney+. Here, Hemsworth — like his Marvel-movie stablemate Gwyneth Paltrow — evinces an interest in wellness, and pursues off-the-beaten-path methods to ensure his prolonged health. The “Thor” star describes his trepidation, excitement, and physical pain to us as he trains to swim across an icy fjord in order to demonstrate the potency of extreme temperatures, to walk along a crane high above the ground to demonstrate mind-over-matter, and to fast for four days in order, really, to impress us with Hemsworthian grit.
The challenges are presented to us in tones of high dudgeon; the coach getting Hemsworth across the fjord declares to him “If you push yourself beyond the point at which you should be coming out, there is a real risk that you could die.” Well, sure — but for the fact that it’s unlikely a major celebrity would be allowed to die on the set of the TV show they’re producing.
Indeed, the nature and quality of Hemsworth’s stardom — the fact that it rests on shoulders custom-grown to superhuman size — is among the more intriguing subtexts of “Limitless.” Throughout, Hemsworth is striving to improve his health and his odds of survival; in moments when his working life bleeds in, one gets a sense of why that might be especially top-of-mind. The fasting episode begins with footage of all he must eat in a day. Later, we watch him fry an iridescently greasy pile of buffalo meat, the diet he must consume towards the goal of gaining 40 pounds of muscle for the fourth “Thor.”
Hemsworth isn’t thrilled about this! He acknowledges that, at the size Marvel demands he must be, he’s less agile and mobile than he’d like. But a job’s a job. And the extremity of Hemsworth’s situation saps some of what might have been the “Goop”-y pleasure of this series, the sense that our celebrity guide through the world of self-improvement is a bit like us, and faces some version of the issues or temptations we might face. (Paltrow, after all, is open about enjoying a drink and sneaking cigarettes. What does Hemsworth do to blow off steam? All we see is his working out.)
Given all this, it’s unsurprising that Hemsworth’s story attracted the attention of Darren Aronofsky, who’s among the executive producers and whose Protozoa Pictures had a hand in making “Limitless.” (Streaming on Disney+, the series is a National Geographic production.) As a director, Aronofsky has always been drawn to the extremes to which the human frame can be pushed. From Ellen Burstyn’s emaciation in “Requiem for a Dream” to Natalie Portman’s and Mickey Rourke’s straining muscles in “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler” to his forthcoming “The Whale,” in which Brendan Fraser plays a 600-pound teacher, the body is, perennially, his subject.
One senses, on the boundaries of “Limitless” — the limits, as it were — a show about the anxieties and fears of an A-list celebrity getting older. (Hemsworth is, today, 39 years old, a psychologically loaded age.) Speaking to camera, Hemsworth describes feeling as though he must put on “a performance” when people see him in public; he also goes into some detail about his fears that he won’t be healthy enough to see grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. With this in mind, the series constructs a faux-“retirement community” for Hemsworth to live in so that he may experience his senescence, and eventually stages his death. It’s a “Nathan for You”-esque series of schemes that overload the viewer with tricks when the real fear and anxiety Hemsworth’s feeling sit in front of us, unresolved.
And then, eventually, the performance clicks back in. Hemsworth is a genial and disarming presence who has also for more than a decade been locked into the ultimate movie-star finishing school. He’s good at this sort of thing, all while keeping the reality of his life safely out of view. What seem to be major revelations — as when he declares “Living my longest, healthiest, happiest, life, that’s going to be the work of a lifetime” — come to seem less than meets the eye after a moment’s consideration. I walked away from “Limitless” thinking that it’s a bit funny, a bit odd, that Hemsworth is devoted enough to self-improvement to spend his time making a whole show about it. In a manner that saps potential drama and interest from the show and makes clear that Hemsworth is not a star built for a say-everything age, he seems already to have it all figured out.
“Limitless” streams Wednesday, November 16, on Disney+.