In the big picture, it's almost always meaningless to compare recent releases to one another, unless that comparison is actually concerned with the time period in which those movies were released — as in, "What do the summer movies of 2012 suggest about our national mood?" and so on. But in the moment, sometimes the similarities and differences between two films, and the reactions they inspire, are hard to shake. And so as I walked out of Looper, I found myself amused by the pure coincidence that Rian Johnson's latest film happened to be released in the wake of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, because both movies are puzzles, but entirely different kinds of puzzles. Anderson's film is maddeningly elusive, ambiguous and, at least to some degree, rather arbitrary — as evidenced by the fact that several scenes in a trailer that doesn't have too many scenes to begin with didn't prove necessary for the film's final cut — but it's rich with character and has an awesomely authentic setting. Johnson's film, on the other hand, is playfully elusive, painstakingly lucid, unequivocal to the point of being cartoonish — as evidenced by the way every threatening figure glowers and/or hovers in the shadows — and its characters are thin and its setting is disjointed, inconsistent and ultimately unconvincing. There's also this: only time will tell, but The Master strikes me as the kind of movie that, once you understand where it's going, opens up to deeper understanding, while Looper strikes me as the kind of story that once initially untangled is entirely understood.
(Super-duper Looper spoilers ahead. I mean it.)
Looper is another in a long line of time-travel adventures, and it's more intricate than most and seems to have fewer loopholes. But perhaps due to his preoccupation with the narrative's DNA, Johnson has shortchanged the movie's emotional soul. Much of Looper suggests a cleaner, lighter Inception, frequently for the better — Joseph Gordon-Levitt's main character lays out all the ground rules in explicit voice-over, but at least that naked exposition doesn't carry on for the entire movie, nor does Johnson try to make every scene rumble with Hans Zimmer-infused urgency. But often Looper could benefit from Christopher Nolan's full-throttle sensibilities. Case in point: Looper has three (arguably even four) troubled love stories, and yet not one of them has a moment as gut wrenching as Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb screaming in anguish as his wife plunges to her death, or as touching as Cobb laying eyes on his children, or as heartbreaking as Marion Cotillard's Mal trembling with anger and pain over her abandonment. (In one moment near the end of Looper, Emily Blunt comes close to the latter, but as much as I love Blunt, nobody cries big, fragile tears like Cotillard. Nobody.) It's not that Looper doesn't make time for these emotional connections; a good chunk of the film is spent on the farm with Joe, Sara (Blunt) and Cid (Pierce Gagnon), Sara's son, who might be the mythical Rainmaker of the dystopian future, or might be the second coming of the titular character from We Need to Talk About Kevin, or might be the Last Airbender, or might be a sweet, misunderstood kid ... well, probably not the last one. Ultimately, Looper is most successful at conjuring emotion when it employs Nolan's hyper-flashback technique to portray the relationship of Bruce Willis' character, which only manages to make its long-form emotional explorations something of a bore.
The movie isn't without sincere pleasures, to be sure, but several of them are meta delights that have little to do with the movie itself, such as fulfilling our desire to see a Frenetic Paul Dano Character meet his gruesome demise. (If Dano can't quit this trembling, crybaby shtick, he's going to retroactively mine some of the magic out from underneath There Will Be Blood ... say it with me now: draaaaaaaaaaaiiiinage!) The best example of these meta delights is watching Gordon-Levitt playing a younger version of Willis. Wearing heavy makeup that occasionally makes him look like a corpse awaiting an open-casket viewing, Gordon-Levitt's upper lip is thinner and his jaw is more rounded, and a few times Johnson appears to have used CGI to give Gordon-Levitt that forehead muscle bulge that has always been a distinctive feature beneath Willis' balding dome. But the power of the impersonation comes in subtle little gestures, mostly around the mouth, that are hard to pinpoint and yet still unmistakable. Does this close approximation add to Looper's depth or authenticity? No and no. If anything, these extremes might take us out of the story, turning Gordon-Levitt's Joe into a sideshow, as we hunt for signs of Younger Bruce. But for movie fans it's fun, even if it comes with the drawback of not getting to enjoy Gordon-Levitt's natural face, which is plenty interesting on its own. (Aside: Imagine how hard it will be for your mom to keep from confusing Gordon-Levitt and Shia LaBeouf now!)
Now, to nitpick the logic of a time-travel flick is hackneyed and boring, I admit, but I can't help but make the following observation: Willis' character puts a heck of a lot of faith in Gordon-Levitt's character, and effectively endangers "both" of them by leaving his younger self with a carefully handwritten note that essentially says, "Run, Forrest, Run!" Gordon-Levitt's character is highly motivated to kill Willis' character, and Willis' character has no means for retaliation. (Hurt your younger self, hurt yourself.) So, you know, why not capture the one other person who must stay alive throughout this ordeal, confining him somewhere safe until you can carry out your not exactly simple mission? Am I missing something here, or does Older Joe not do that for the same reason most movie characters in intricate plots don't do the obvious: because then we wouldn't have a movie? In that way, Johnson's film isn't quite as clever as it first seems — not nearly as intelligent as Brick, for example, but that movie is special — and it's never a good sign when the dramatic showdown between two characters is interrupted by the sudden appearance of the Insignificant Villain, who shows up just long enough to confirm his insignificance.
With its not-so-surprising surprise ending, its attraction to the supernatural and its love-can-conquer-all takeaway, you cold convince me that Looper is actually the lost work of a middling M. Night Shyamalan, circa Signs, and not just because it includes Willis. That comparison will likely make fans of Johnson cringe, considering the director has made us forget about the, well, very forgettable The Brothers Bloom and doubled-down on his cool factor at the same time by directing two strong episodes of the outstanding television series Breaking Bad. But back before Lady in the Water plunged Shyamalan into an abyss of cinematic blundering from which he hasn't come up for air, even middling Shyamalan was sporadically compelling at least, if not quite deeply enriching. Looper is the kind of movie that sends people away from the theater sure that they've been somewhere. Whether people will find the same enjoyment on a return trip, I have my doubts.