“A remarkable feat of imagination and execution, entertaining from start to finish…” — The AV Club
“A lean, mean, smart, violent picture with a bit of Stanley Kubrick edge…” — Salon
“A highflying, super-stylish science-fiction thriller that brings a fresh approach to mind-bending genre material…” — Los Angeles Times
I wanted to like Looper. I really did. And I thought I was going to, based on the slew of positive reviews from trusted sources. I liked Brick a lot, Rian Johnson’s first film and one that also starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And Johnson’s Breaking Bad episodes have been fantastic. I like intelligent, sci-fi/action hybrids, which is what Looper was marketed as. And I believe I’m on record as liking one Mr. Bruce Willis.
But Looper is not a good movie. In fact, I consider it the most disappointing film of 2012 so far. Spoilers ahead, obviously.
Looper suffers from some very basic problems, ones that could have been corrected fairly easily for the most part:
1) The Impersonation Problem
Holy shit, what a terrible idea to have Joseph Gordon-Levitt do a Bruce Willis impression in this movie! JGL and Willis play the same character at different ages. JGL and Willis do not look or sound alike. To remedy this problem, Johnson stuffs JGL’s boyish face into a grotesque Bruce Willis death mask of makeup and prosthetics, gives him what I can only assume is fake stubble and has him deliver his lines in a gruff, jaded bark.
The result is monstrously distracting for at least the first half of the movie, until you get to used to the forced cadences and squinty facial expressions, and JGL simultaneously tones down the Willis-ing for the back half of the film. Johnson would have been much better off just letting JGL play his role without adding an impersonation level of difficulty to the performance. It would have been easier to suspend disbelief and accept that these two very distinct actors were playing the same character than it is to avoid focusing on the ridiculousness of JGL’s look and sound.
2) The Tonal Shift Problem
The first 30 or 40 minutes of Looper basically arrives as advertised: a time-travel thriller with equal parts sci-fi, noir and action-adventure elements. Then, JGL’s character arrives at a farm where Emily Blunt and her young son live and the film’s momentum stops so short it flips end over end. The flow of action slows to a small leak, which is fine. In general, I think wild tonal shifts in films are welcome surprises…when they not only undermine audience expectations but also serve plot and character. The shift in Looper accomplishes the former but not the latter.
The business on Blunt’s farm is simply boring: we have to watch while a Willis-aping JGL and Blunt fall in love. Even worse, the movie shifts genres from tightly wound thriller to schlocky horror movie. Blunt’s son reveals himself to be Rosemary’s Baby and there’s a whole lot of poorly filmed supernatural nonsense in which he makes objects fly around with his mind. Looper never recovers. When it tries to shift back to an action movie for its climax, we’re still too scarred from dealing with this EVIL child to notice or care.
3) The Child Actor Problem
OK, so maybe we at Pop Culture Has AIDS are unduly harsh critics of child actors. Fair enough. So we’ll just say that Blunt’s son in the movie had a laughable delivery during a whole bunch of scenes that were not intended as comedy.
4) The Plausibility Problem
Any movie with a time travel plot is going to face certain conundrums involving the scientific reality of time travel, particularly how actions in one timeline affect other timelines or how a time traveler’s behavior in the past affects the future. Back to the Future II, for example, crumbled from the weight of contending with these logical curlicues.
With Looper, Johnson attempts to preemptively circumvent criticism on this front with a ridiculous conversation between JGL and Willis. When he first meets his time-traveling older self, JGL asks how all this works — meaning the time travel itself. He wonders if he (JGL) learns something in the present from Willis if it will impact everything that happens in the future. Willis deflects, first telling JGL not to ask questions then stammering that things are “cloudy” and he doesn’t really know how it works. The scene is meta and irritating. Johnson clearly thinks that including it will mitigate any plot holes later in the film.
Speaking of which…the biggest plot hole, of which there are many, comes at the very end. Willis is about to kill Blunt’s son, knowing that he will grow up to be an evil mob boss or something like that. JGL, believing Blunt’s love can redeem her son, shoots himself so that Willis dies/disappears from existence before he can kill the kid. But why wouldn’t JGL just have blown his hand off so that Willis’s hand would disappear, ensuring he dropped the gun and Blunt and her kid could escape? Killing himself provided a fitting thematic end for the movie, but it made no sense. He could have taken any number of actions to prevent Willis murdering the boy that were less extreme than the one he chose. (He couldn’t shoot Willis because, conveniently, even though he was a hitman he was only provided a gun that couldn’t shoot straight beyond 15 feet.)
An one of these problems might not have been enough to sink the film. But collectively, they choked the life out of a promising premise.