Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, AP film critic Christy Lemire and USA Today’s Claudia Puig discuss Rian Johnson’s “Looper” and the unique career trajectory of its star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The movie opens Friday.
Christy, when “Brick” originally came out, you found aspects of it interesting but generally felt the gimmick was a distraction. You gave a far more favorable review to “The Brothers Bloom,” but pointed out that it was stylistically very different, more like a quixotic flight of fancy than a noir like “Brick.” Now comes “Looper,” a dystopian science fiction movie. How do you feel about this one in relation to Johnson’s earlier movies?
LEMIRE: I need to go back and re-watch “Brick.” I will readily admit that. I really admired the ambition of it. I thought it was so different from anything else out there. I loved Joseph Gordon-Levitt in it, but I thought it was so structured and self-conscious that it kept you at arm’s length. I should revisit it. I thought “Looper” was his best film yet in terms of scope, concept and the cast. I loved “Looper,” and it does makes me want to go back and look at “Brick.”
Claudia, you were a bigger fan of “Brick” and “Brothers Bloom,” so you have less reevaluation to do.
PUIG: Based on those two movies, I was so looking forward to this one, because I’ve actually seen “Brothers Bloom” three or four times. It’s one of my favorite movies and it went totally under the radar for most people. I really liked “Brick,” mostly because of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Christy, I see what you’re saying about the style that keeps you at an arm’s length with a kind of self-conscious approach. At the same time, I really liked what he was doing with this noir film set in high school.
I liked “Looper” at a lot, too. To me, there’s a through-line: He’s definitely getting more ambitious. Like “Brothers Bloom,” I think this has an uplifting message, even though it’s a dystopian science fiction movie. I think the second half of the movie has a message that’s markedly different in a way from the first half of the movie. There’s a point where the whole thing involves Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt and this little boy. I think that mitigates some of the more dystopian action aspects that may lack some humanism. There’s a whole lot of humanism in the second section, which is ultimately why it worked even better for me than I expected.
In my own review, I found the shift into the second half of the movie to be somewhat problematic, or at least jarring, because it’s so fundamentally different from the first half. In some ways, it’s an entirely different movie. Christy, you were telling me earlier that you actually liked that.
LEMIRE: I was impressed with the way it kept changing. It incorporates a lot of different genres and has a lot of points of reference. At one point, it’s a wild west shootout. At another point, it’s “The Terminator.” There’s a lot of stuff going on, but it stays true to the characters. Because it goes to this softer and quieter place, it really does allow us to care about these people and the difficult decisions they have to make and the fates that await them in a way that most cold, slick sci-fi movies might not.
PUIG: I agree. I think I liked the second half a little bit more because the first part was more interesting to me intellectually but wasn’t engaging me on a more emotional level. When it switched to what you rightly call a different movie, it allowed me to care more about everybody. I liked the concept of loopers but wasn’t caring as much until the second half. I do find that there are questions about the specifics of the looping process still rolling around in my head. There are still some logistical questions I’m working through, but that’s okay.
LEMIRE: That’s what’s fun about a time travel movie, having a conversation with your friends afterwards to figure out if all the cogs in the machinery work. For the most part, I think they do, and I don’t want to ruin things, but there are a few parts I still have questions about: “If so-and-so is doing this, why is this happening?”
Science fiction movies on a larger scale generally manifest in the action-horror vein, like “Prometheus.” But “Looper” is getting a pretty wide release. Is there a dearth of great sci-fi movies these days? And if so, does “Looper” address the problem?
PUIG: You’re probably right. I don’t have a lot of expertise in the genre, but I kept comparing it to “Inception” and even “Memento,” both heady sci-fi movies, and I think fans of those films will like this one as well.
LEMIRE: This kind of movie, an original, cerebral time travel movie, does exist in smaller packages. Look at something like “Safety Not Guaranteed,” which Claudia and I saw together and loved.
PUIG: That’s a really good example. With “Safety Not Guaranteed,” those who saw it loved it. That’s a really low budget example. “Looper” is like a middle level example and “Inception” would be a bigger example.
Both of you noted that “Looper” benefits from strong characters, which obviously owes something to the performances. What do you make of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s progress up until this point? Is this a transitional moment for him?
PUIG: He’s moving more and more into this area. You think of “(500) Days of Summer” and other movies where he’s playing a kind of quirky guy in a romantic comedy. But then you have “Premium Rush,” “Looper” and, of course, “The Dark Knight Rises,” where you can see him moving in an action direction. He’s proving that he can do many things and I think he’s a big talent.
And what do you make of Bruce Willis in this movie?
PUIG: Bruce Willis has carved out his niche as an action star, but now you see him doing things like the Wes Anderson movie “Moonrise Kingdom.” Whereas he was once one kind of actor, he’s now expanding in his later years, while Gordon-Levitt seems to be doing it early on.
LEMIRE: Willis can do the action star stuff in his sleep. I like the vulnerability, world-weariness and romanticism of his character in “Looper,” and thus the happiness that he fights for that makes him very appealing here. Gordon-Levitt can do every genre and he’s still hugely likable, but this is his most flawed and darkest character yet. You could compare it to “Mysterious Skin.” He’s a criminal who’s inherently selfish and willing to sell his friends out for money. He’s a bad guy, but he’s so appealing even when he’s wearing a Bruce Willis prosthetic nose and contact lenses.
When I was at South by Southwest a few years ago, when “Disturbia” was coming out, I was interviewing Shia LaBeouf on a patio at the Four Seasons. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was at another table promoting another movie. It’s interesting to see where those two actors have gone since then. LaBeouf was about to be in the latest Indiana Jones movie and was going to do a bunch of other big movies. Gordon-Levitt chose smaller, weirder stuff and stayed really eclectic. It’s interesting to see how they’re switching lanes — Gordon-Levitt is in these bigger blockbuster movies and LaBeouf is trying to prove he can act.
PUIG: Right, with “Lawless” and things like that. There was a point with “Disturbia” where it looked like he was going to be the next Tom Hanks, a guy with real likability, and I don’t know exactly where that has gone but it hasn’t flourished. You take someone like Gordon-Levitt — everybody likes him even in less likable roles. He’s going to have a long future. As for Willis, it’s nice to see him do smaller character parts. I do see more vulnerability here. My daughter, who’s 22, sees him as an old man (except that his skin looks good). But when he goes in with guns blazing, she was struck by how good he came off doing that, unlike the cast of “The Expendables.”
We’re gearing up for awards season, and so far, “Looper” hasn’t been a big part of the discussion. Do you either of you think it has a shot at entering into that game?
LEMIRE: It’s possible. There’s a slot in the Best Picture category that already exists for the heady sci-fi movie.
PUIG: Especially if you have eight or 10 slots, like the Academy Awards do.
LEMIRE: It may have a shot at Best Original Screenplay. We need to time travel to the future to find out if it’s really possible.