Illustration by André Carrilho
Once you know that Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young Bruce Willis in Looper, you can’t help expecting him to resemble David Addison, the private-eye character in the television series Moonlighting, which introduced Willis to audiences almost 30 years ago. In Rian Johnson’s brainy new science-fiction blockbuster, a “looper” is an assassin who executes victims sent from the future by a crime syndicate that doesn’t have to account for the bodies. There’s one spectacular catch: To keep matters truly tidy, at some point the syndicate sends back the “looper” himself, to be killed by his younger version, who in return spends his remaining years living the good life until his long-term death sentence
is carried out. Naturally, by the time Gordon-Levitt has grown up to be Willis, he finds the arrangement less appealing, not to mention that it’s at the expense of a woman he’s come to love in the interim. Joe the younger and Joe the senior (“Old Joe,” as Willis is identified in the credits, which must make him wince) are locked in a battle against each other and time. Gordon-Levitt’s Joe doesn’t share any of the younger Willis’s high spirits, none of his smart patter; he’s not going to serenade Cybill Shepherd with Manfred Mann songs, as Addison did. But there’s enough of the Willis smirk around Gordon-Levitt’s grim smile to suggest he’s the coolest cat in the room if not always the smartest, and if Joe is shrewder than Addison, he’s also more joyless, as would befit someone with that much blood on his hands, who’s made that sort of deal with the devil.
Listed as Looper’s star, Willis is really part of an ensemble, as he was in this past summer’s Moonrise Kingdom, where he also received top billing. With The Expendables 2 and The Cold Light of Day, Willis has half a dozen features coming out this year—more than in any previous year unless you count 2006, when he was doing cartoon voices—reigniting a career that had stalled, as most movie careers do sooner or later. Since a ’90s that included Pulp Fiction, Twelve Monkeys, The Fifth Element, and The Sixth Sense, Willis hasn’t had a hit in which he made more than a cameo appearance or wasn’t John McClane, the breakthrough role in Die Hard that he’s continued in three sequels with another on the way. McClane is Addison with the rough edges made sharper: the wise guy, amusing right up to just short of obnoxious, but also the Everyman whom contemporary tough guys Stallone and Schwarzenegger never were, having the sense to be terrified when trapped on a rooftop and shot at from helicopters. In that way Willis reminds us a bit of Bogart, who was man enough to admit he was scared in pictures like The Big Sleep and then set out to accomplish the task at hand anyhow, while still being good for a quip.
Of course enduring stars master the combination of professionalism, acting proficiency, and the distinct and winning persona that’s been the basis of Willis’s stardom. What’s striking is that except for Die Hard, Willis’s best work has been in movies where he set the wise guy aside: In Pulp Fiction he’s the boxer who’s had the wise guy beaten out of him; in The Sixth Sense he’s a man alone in a netherworld, his existentialism too profound for a bon mot—I won’t say more in case you’re the one person alive who doesn’t know what happens in the movie—and who’s bound to be upstaged by his preposterously good 11-year-old costar, Haley Joel Osment. Go back and watch The Sixth Sense again, however, knowing what you know from the first time, and you’ll realize it’s Willis who makes the movie work. If you’ve seen him in films as far back as 1991’s Mortal Thoughts, in which he was the biggest star but took third billing to play an abusive husband, you suspect he’s exactly the kind of Hollywood mainstay who has a supporting actor Oscar in his career’s twilight; he has the chops to exceed expectations and surprise a public that wouldn’t be surprised if it had paid closer attention.
It’s to Willis’s credit, and a testament to his seriousness as an actor, that in Looper his character appears molded to Gordon-Levitt’s rather than the other way around. Rare is the man who’s more defined by who he’ll become than who he’s been, and Looper has the integrity not to wind up a star vehicle. In Moonrise Kingdom the wise guy who’s peeked out of even Willis’s most subdued performances is nowhere to be seen; he exudes defeat as the local police captain searching for two runaways on a remote island. “Strange and sad” is how Captain Sharp is witheringly described by one of the kids, and it isn’t just Willis’s rat-a-tat mouth that’s quieted but his spirit: Throughout the film his whole physical being sags—until he turns out to be the story’s most sympathetic character. Willis can hide away the wise guy but not the hero, whose most valiant act in the film is the expression of a paternal instinct.
Moonrise Kingdom has been the indie success of the summer, and months into its release, after the mammoth Battleship, Men in Black 3, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had come and gone, writer-director Wes Anderson’s comedy was still selling out Friday night screenings. I celebrate this in the way I cheer any such triumph by any filmmaker as individual and fearless as Anderson, of whom I consider myself a fan, more or less; my wife adores Rushmore from 1998, and I’m more partial to 2007’s shambolic The Darjeeling Limited than anyone I know. But I’ve always understood why some moviegoers are put off by him, and the Anderson they’re put off by is very much the one who made Moonrise Kingdom, in which the filmmaker’s trademark eccentricity finally becomes as arch and affected as his detractors claim. With the deadpan delivery of the actors’ lines matching the deadpan composition of the shots, the tone is whimsical to the point of cloying and the irony self-satisfied to the point of superior. All of Anderson’s movies are peopled by misfits who might be darker and more compelling if they were less sentimentalized, whether it’s Rushmore’s Jason Schwartzman as the precocious teen director of extravagant school plays or Darjeeling Limited ’s three estranged brothers reuniting in a far-off India after their father’s death. The oddballs of Moonrise’s New Penzance island are the oddest yet: married lawyers who call each other “counselor” and the Khaki Scouts led by Edward Norton and Bob Balaban’s one-man meteorological Greek chorus.
Perhaps because Schwartzman seems so clearly autobiographical in Rushmore and because the banality of the brothers’ alienation in Darjeeling offsets the idiosyncrasy that Anderson cultivates, those films are more persuasive in their emotional complexity. Tellingly, in the filmmaker’s best, The Royal Tenenbaums, he reached beyond his stock company of Schwartzman and Owen Wilson and Bill Murray to include outsiders such as Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow. Hackman’s prodigal father is Anderson’s most fully dimensional character, an uneasy collaboration between the director and actor to create someone for whom other characters and the audience have feelings both ambiguous and powerful—all of which may hint at why Willis is the best thing in Moonrise Kingdom and the one element that feels real before even he’s caught in the maw of the film’s disastrous third act. Otherwise what remains in the memory is the so-called kingdom itself, a routine island successfully imbued with the magic of Anderson’s imagination as translated by light, his muted palette typically disturbed by flashes of yellow and red. More forgettable are the kids at the story’s center who remind us, through no fault of their own because they’ve been directed this way, how Anderson is better served by actors unwilling to be as much marionettes as the stop-motion figures of Anderson’s 2009 animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox (a film I liked, I should add). Moonrise Kingdom is at once Anderson’s biggest hit (yay) and weakest work (groan), and unfair though it may be to suggest—but then who said life is fair?—you can’t escape the feeling that what audiences adored this summer was the way the movie flattered our sense of our own sophistication, in a cineplex alive with flying spiders and vigilante bats.