Sunday, September 30, 2012

I See Dull People: Looper

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.


Mike Mariano said...

I thought The Master was more of a cartoon than Looper, but the Nolan comparison is apt.

Johnson rips Bruce Willis's relationship with his wife wholesale from Memento—right down to identical shots. (Willis's/Pearce's wife dying on the floor next to him.)

Using extremely abbreviated flashbacks requires a lot of unearned faith from the audience—you have to believe that this dead wife you know nothing about is worth killing for. But while Nolan played it straight, Johnson embraces some very silly moments. It's absolutely worth asking the question: "Should I really trust this guy as a storyteller when he's being so cavalier about it?"

Dan O. said...

Great review Jason. Didn’t have me as emotionally-invested as I thought I could have been, but still, a pretty solid sci-fi flick that’s heavy on story and characters, which is all that mattered to me.

Kevin J. Olson said...

If INCEPTION could have been the length that LOOPER is, then I think I would have been a much bigger fan of Nolan's film. Nolan gets bogged down with exposition that detracts from his pretty impressive action stunts. LOOPER just kind of comes right and out and says, "Hey, we know time travel narratives are tricky, so let's not worry about that and focus on the characters."

I liked that Johnson -- in the diner scene -- basically has Willis tell the audience that whenever genre movies get bogged down with the details of time travel, they cease being interesting. I liked the simplicity of the narrative that just cuts through the troublesome stuff (If I want cerebral sci-fi, there are better places to go looking for it) and presents the film as a fun genre picture.

Because the film doesn't get bogged down by the same problems Nolan's film did, I was able to really enjoy what I was seeing -- the energy of it all -- on screen. The first 30 minutes or so were energetic and frenetic without wearing down my senses. I loved the way JGL channeled his inner Willis with all kinds of squints and grunts and raspy replies. I also loved the way the film really rushes you along those first 30 minutes and then slows down to tell its story.

I loved how Johnson meted out the information so that little, seemingly throwaway bits like the TK thing actually come back into play and tie together nicely with the ending. I was pleasantly surprised by the film considering my disdain for THE BROTHERS BLOOM. I felt that Johnson was more reined-in here than in his previous film. He almost runs into the ground the bit where the people from the future suddenly appear and then get shot (it reminded me of Aronofsky's almost-overuse of the eye gimmick in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM) as well as overdoes it a bit with the lens flare (not as bad as Abrams).

Here's what I really love about LOOPER, though: it doesn't come off as wanting to be anything more than a genre film. The tone and pacing of the film reminded me a lot of another mainstream genre film, MINORITY REPORT. There's a lot to love here from the stylized aesthetic, to the performances (between this and MOONRISE KINGDOM, Willis hasn't seemed this invested in years), to the simple (relatively speaking) approach to its narrative. Loved the energy and style of the film. I haven't seen a lot of movies this year, but this is one of my favorites. I'm sure there's a ton of stuff (and specifics) that I wanted to mention but have omitted...but the NyQuil is kicking in, so that's to be expected, hehe.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I remembered something I wanted to add to me "loved it" list: They way Johnson shows us torture without really showing us the torture. That whole scene with the older Dano character -- and his disappearing limbs -- was inspired.

Yes, the film doesn't have the "gravity" of a Nolan film, but that's what I love so much about it. I would have been all-in with INCEPTION had it not been so interested in trying to explain what was happening instead of just reveling in its massive, epic nature (but with about 30 minutes trimmed from the final product).

Because Johnson kind of admits to the audience that no matter how hard he tries, there are inherent -- often unexplainable -- problems with time-travel narratives, it allows him to free up time in his movie for bits like the one mentioned above with future Dano.

Okay, I'll stop now...

Jason Bellamy said...

Sorry for the delays here; busy week.

Thanks much for the thoughts, everyone.

A few thoughts back at Kevin ...

* No doubt, INCEPTION gets lost in its own maze. But here's what's interesting: that's the common complaint. Almost everyone who knocks INCEPTION -- even en route to praising it -- seems to agree that it spends too much time verbally articulating its own structure. And yet that movie is more emotionally powerful than LOOPER, for me anyway. So it's not that I'm wishing that LOOPER were more complex or spent more time tinkering with its time travel mindfuck elements. It's that I find it odd that it deliberately avoids getting lost in the weeds but then doesn't do enough with the opportunity it creates for itself. It's not that LOOPER doesn't give emotionality the good old college try. It does that, and maybe more. But for whatever reason, it doesn't resonate as powerfully as INCEPTION in its high points. I don't want to make this all about the comparison between the two films, so I'll stop comparing them from here, but that's something I find interesting.

* I wish I could share your appreciation of the TK thing, but that element felt awkward for me from the very beginning, perhaps because the message is repeatedly, "Nothing to see here! Nothing to see here!" And that always makes me think, hmm, maybe there's something to see over there...

* I agree that the first 30 minutes have a great rhythm to them. Things stalled for me on the farm. I honestly struggled to figure out what Johnson wanted me to feel, who he wanted me to align with, what we're supposed to find interesting. And his treatment of Cid (an ominous presence even when offscreen) is so blatant that I assumed he was trying to make a (comic?) point. But then later I get the sense Johnson thinks we'll be surprised when Cid turns Rainmaker. Odd.

* I'm glad you praised the suggestion of torture. One of my favorite moments that I forgot to mention is the Willis shootout: showing him firing his gun, but only little of the carnage, or not showing him firing the gun and showing us the aftermath. We still feel the violence despite the restraint. That's good stuff.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Good points, Jason. A few thoughts:

1. I don't really want to compare the two films either (INCEPTION and LOOPER) either because I think it detracts from what both do well (LOOPER's economic approach to its storyline and setting versus INCEPTION's more emotionally resonant flashbacks and awe-inspiring action set-pieces), but I will concede that the emotion isn't there in LOOPER. But I think that's because I found LOOPER to be more (intentionally) detached than INCEPTION. Johnson does try to give us something with Willis when he's in Shanghai where we get the SID & NANCY montage (at least I think it's SID &'s been a while) of his wife helping get his life back on track. That stuff is fine when it's on screen, but you're right, it doesn't resonate; it doesn't leave the theater with the viewer.

I also want to say that even though I love the film (I gave it a totally arbitrary grade of A+ on Twitter as I was leaving the theater, but I do really love the movie), I noticed it losing its steam when it got to the farm and Willis started turning into the Terminator. But I didn't really mind that Johnson was slowing things down. I thought that opening 30 minutes had earned the film a lot of goodwill, and there was enough Jeff Daniels interspliced to keep me entertained even if I found the stuff with Emily Blunt to be a little blah.

I didn't mind the TK or Rainmaker stuff because, and not to sound snide, but I had a pretty good read on the movie, and once I figured out what Johnson was doing with the whole TK/Rainmaker thing, I didn't mind that the movie did what it did. I kind of liked that it didn't get all M Night-y (since you brought him up) and throw some kind of twist ending in there.

Finally, I like that you mention the shootout at the end. I love the way Johnson kind of swings his camera as if it's going to go around the corner so we see the (assumed) massive amount of bodies Willis has left, but then he pulls the camera back. That kind of restraint in a sci-fi/action film is a welcome sight.

I don't think the film is without fault; it drags a bit when it gets to the farm, but there's so much here that just makes me giddy with admiration. It's funny in that I never get out to see movies in the theater, yet here I've seen THE MASTER and LOOPER in the span of two weeks. The former I have a very formalist, kind of cold, admiration for; the latter I am, as I just said, kind of giddy when I talk about it (it actually, oddly enough, reminds me of my reaction post-MAGNOLIA or PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE).

Jeremy said...

I liked the first 30 minutes, which seemed fresh and interesting, and yeah, Paul Dano got killed(is he ever NOT annoying?). Then it spent the rest of the movie bumbling around the mid-west with characters I never got invested in, and reminding me of better films like The Terminator, Akira, and 12 Monkeys.

Also, I'm seeing Lawrence of Arabia for the first time tonight on the big screen, and I'm looking forward to finally being able to read your Conversations piece about it.

Steven Santos said...


How can I put this? "Looper" is a fun way to pass two hours, slightly above average movie junk food. Much like you, I'm a bit perplexed of the raves this is receiving for being original and groundbreaking, when it's sort of a sloppy, half-thought out Frankenstein of spare plot points from so many better movies, which is what I think Rian Johnson seems to specialize in. (Thought Gordon-Levitt elevated "Brick" to something a little more than a gimmick and I lasted only through a half hour of the forced whimsy of "Bloom".)

For all the plot mechanisms cranking, some of which don't hold up to about 5-10 minutes of thinking, I did wish for a more human connection to the material. This wasn't helped by characters acting according to the plot rather than any kind of plausible psychological reasoning. Does young Joe think getting rid of old Joe is ever going to set him right with the gangsters? Couldn't Old Joe, as you mentioned, have taken more cautious steps towards dealing with his dilemma instead of turning into a non-stop killing machine? Why on earth does Sara sleep with young Joe?

Perhaps, when Johnson solidifies his fanboy base or makes a comic book movie will anyone, I don't know, actually not give his work such an easy pass? This is a film where old Joe shoots a kid dead (the wrong kid), gets upset a little bit and basically returns to spree killing. If anyone is arguing that the film is not meant to be taken seriously, I would counter it's rather obvious the ending is supposed to provide some sort of emotional payoff. Though my problem is, basically, young Joe decides, a bit too late, to stop acting like a selfish prick, though old Joe still basically doesn't get it. Sara's probably the only character we have any right to feel anything for. The moral implications of time traveling (the reason any good time travel movie works) Joe's actions (both young and old) are pretty much left unexplored.

And, as far as the Insignificant Villain or, as I call him, the Designated Douchebag. That character only exists in the hackiest of screenplays. He feels like he time traveled from a James Cameron script just to have someone being a pain in the neck in the movie for no particular reason whatsoever. A smarter director would have had Jeff Daniels kill him instead of break his hand, preventing him from popping up at two or three significant plot moments for reasons completely illogical beyond being an asshole. (Oh, and let's give the guy a southern accent to make him sound like a dumb redneck-type, right?)

While you may have brought up other films in your piece, one surprisingly few have mentioned, comes to mind: "Twelve Monkeys", a film that actually does pay off emotionally and which the logic of time travel isn't over-thought and over-complicated as this one is. I think Rian Johnson's best work were his "Breaking Bad" episodes. He certainly has some visual panache, but maybe screenwriting is not his strong suit. Being clever just isn't enough for me. Perhaps, the latest trend of criticism to reward good form in the service of somewhat dopey material is something he can benefit from now. But maybe, at some point, more would like to see a beating heart in his work that doesn't feel like its run by mechanical gears.

Jason Bellamy said...

Steven: Delayed reply, but great comment. I agree with much of it to the letter. This, to me, is the crux of the problem: "Sara's probably the only character we have any right to feel anything for."

I say that while recognizing that I think Willis/Johnson milk quite a bit out of those brief glimpses of Joe's married life, and Willis makes us feel not just his love for his eventual wife (wife, right?) but his RESPECT for her. But those are emotions we feel in the moment, and their effect vanishes quickly.

The Sara stuff is much more developed, and yet, other than the very end, not as powerful. So, yeah, backhanded compliment. The movie spends more time to go not very far.