Movie Reviews - 2012 postsMonday October 01, 2012
Movie Review: Looper (2012)
The great technological innovation in Rian Johnson’s “Looper” isn’t the time travel that allows criminals in 2074 to dispose of enemies by sending them back to 2044, where assassins, known as “loopers,” await to blow them away; it’s the CGI/prosthetics that allow Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing young Joe in 2044, to look like Bruce Willis, who plays old Joe sent back from 2074. It helps that JGL also does a pretty good Bruce Willis imitation: that pursed, amused smirk; the whispery low tone.
Thirty years is a long time but Bruce Willis has been a star almost that long. “Moonlighting” went on the air in 1985 and in 1988 we got “Die Hard.” For a guy whose fame seemed like a fluke, and who’s had his share of bombs (“Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Hudson Hawk” were released in back-to-back years), he keeps on keeping on. He also makes movies that will be remembered: “Die Hard,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable.”
Letting your loop run
The movie opens with a stopwatch, young Joe’s, because he’s awaiting another victim from the future to blow away. We also get young Joe’s voiceover explaining the situation. In 2044 time travel hasn’t been invented yet. In 2074 it has but it’s been outlawed. Our first message is an NRA message: outlaw time travel and only outlaws will use time travel.
We get bits of Joe’s life in Kansas in 2044. He’s studying French. He chats up Beatrix, a waitress at his favorite diner, and parties at night with his looper buddies, and gets wasted with eyedrop drugs. He sees a good-looking whore occasionally, Susie (Piper Perabo), and the next day he starts the cycle again. Kansas looks like a futuristic Hooverville but Joe feels nothing for the people around him. He’s a looper, after all. He kills folks for a living.
Every once in a while, a looper kills his older self, sent back from 2074, and he’s cashed out of the biz. This is known as “closing the loop,” we’re told. Every once in a while, a looper can’t kill his older self sent back from 2074, and allows him to escape. This is known as “letting your loop run,” we’re told. The latter happens to Joe’s friend, Seth (Paul Dano), who is also a TK, meaning he has mild telekinesis powers. When he lets his loop run, Seth shows up in Joe’s place and begs for help; he gets it, grudgingly. But then Joe is pulled in before Abe (Jeff Daniels, bearded), the 2070s gangster who runs the operation, and he give up Seth. When young Seth dies, old Seth disappears. Bit by bit. Nose first. Let this be a lesson.
It isn’t. Old Joe shows up and young Joe hesitates before killing him. The hesitation is all. Old Joe decks his younger self, runs, and our battle is engaged.
How did young Joe become Old Joe? He’d been studying French (“nous avons... vous avez...”), but, redirected by Abe, he wound up in Shanghai, where he lived off his looper earnings. He partied, did drugs... I guess that’s about it. That was his life. Then he went back to gangstering. Then he met a girl (Qing Xu), whom he loved, and who weaned him from eyedrop drugs. They built a life together. Then the bad guys came and took it all away. A gangster named Rainmaker, whom we never see, but who came to power by himself, without associates, is sending back all the old loopers to be killed by their younger selves; and when they grab Old Joe they kill Qing Xu, too. At the time-travel launch pad, Joe turns the tables and kills his captors. At this point why doesn’t he run? Why does he still send his sorry ass back to Kansas 2044? So he can find Rainmaker as a child and kill him and thus save Qing Xu.
Letting your loop run amuck
At this point, we get all kinds of fun time-travel shit. Young Joe sets up a meeting with Old Joe by burning the meeting place (“BEATRIX”) onto his arm, which will suddenly appear as a scar on the arm of old Joe. That kind of thing.
Though little is known of Rainmaker, Old Joe knows when and where he was born. He also has the addresses of the three kids who were born on that day and in that place, and, like the Terminator seeking out all the Sarah Connors of 1984, Old Joe seeks out all the kids who might grow up to be Rainmaker. The first is a curly haired tyke returning from school. He turns. There’s Old Joe with a gun. I know I’m a dick but it’s a shame they didn’t show the killing, which needs to be done, but which involves showing Bruce Willis actually blowing away an innocent five-year-old. I’m sure the filmmakers, or the studio, or Bruce Willis’ agent, decided we have to maintain some sympathy for the character, not to mention our aging star. The killing is merely suggested.
The second child turns out to be the son of Susie, which is an unnecessary coincidence. The third child is at a farm near fields of dry sugar cane, where young Joe, who got the address from Old Joe, lies in wait. He still wants to close his loop so he can continue to live his life for another 30 years. Until, you know, he kills himself.
The farm is run by the no-nonsense Sara (Emily Blunt), who is a bit of a TK. Her boy, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), takes a shine to Joe and less so to Sara, whom he claims is not his real mom. He says he remembers his real mom. “When I was a baby,” he says, all pudgy cheeks and fierce eyes, “I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t stop her from getting killed. I wasn’t strong enough.” It’s poignant and the boy is quite good. He gives off a scary, “Twilight Zone” vibe here.
I’ll cut to the chase. The boy is an all-powerful TK who can blow apart people with his mind, and who, yes, becomes the Rainmaker. Old Joe shows up at the farm after killing Abe and his men, and he and young Joe have a showdown. Old Joe gets the upper hand, or at least enough of one to have both Cid and Sara in his sites; and it leads to this epiphany from young Joe, our narrator, who tells us he sees it all happening: Old Joe killing Sara; a motherless Cid forced to raise himself in a brutal world until he comes of age and takes his awful revenge upon it. But Joe sees a way out of this unending cycle. He turns his shotgun on himself and pulls the trigger. Old Joe blips out of existence, never having been, while Cid now has a chance to use his powers for good. Or something.
Letting your loop run off at the mouth
As I said, “Looper” is clever at times, but I still got bored. I wanted less action, more talk. There are so many possibilities during the scene at the diner. Old Joe chastises his younger self, lays into him and calls him stupid, as most of us would do if we could face our younger selves. (Think Morgan Freeman’s speech in “Shawshank.”) It would have been fun to see more of this. But that would’ve been a different movie.
Some moments don’t make much sense, either. I’m not talking about the inevitable time-travel paradoxes—e.g., if old Joe never existed, how did young Joe wind up on Sara’s farm with the motivation to shoot himself? No, my quibbles relate more to matters of logic. Such as:
- If criminals in 2074 send their enemies back in time to die because it’s impossible to dispose of a body in 2074, why don’t they kill the enemy first and send back the body for disposal? Why not time-travel it to a graveyard? Wouldn’t this be easier? Less expensive? Allow for fewer fuck-ups with the space-time continuum?
- Is time travel also location travel? Old Joe is zapped from Shanghai 2074 to Kansas 2044 rather than Shanghai 2044. If so, can you do one without the other? And is location travel allowed in 2074? Would help with the commute, certainly.
- Is Old Joe prevented from killing the second kid? If so, why doesn’t he return to finish the job?
- Can Old Joe reset the time pod? If so, why doesn’t he? He could show up earlier. He could kill Cid more leisurely.
- How can Old Joe take his younger self hostage at the diner? Isn’t that like this scene from “Blazing Saddles”? Shouldn’t Abe’s men laugh and kill both men? Or just kill young Joe and let Old Joe blip out of existence?
- Why the term “looper”? These guys aren’t looping anything. I kept thinking of the way Big Bird mispronounces Mr. Hooper’s name on “Sesame Street.” I went into and out of the theater with Big Bird’s voice in my head.
Some critics feel “Looper” is deep. I think it has the chance to be so; I think it just stayed pretty close to shore.
Movie Review: Trouble with the Curve (2012)
Remember all of those aging decrepit scouts in “Moneyball” who didn’t know shit compared with the sabermetric whiz kid with the computer (Jonah Hill)? Well, they’re back, baby, but this time they’re the heroes, with the lead scout played one of the most iconic figures in Hollywood history (Clint Eastwood), while the whiz kid with the computer is now played by the asshole who cuckolded George Clooney in “The Descendants” (Matthew Lillard). Consider it “Moneyball II: Revenge of the Aging, Decrepit Scouts.”
There’s great irony in all of this, which I’ll get to by and by.
Eastwood hasn’t acted in a movie since “Gran Torino” in 2008, and he hasn’t acted in a movie he didn’t direct since Wolfgang Petersen directed him in “In the Line of Fire” back in 1993. So what’s he doing in this mediocre piece of nothing? Did some big-name director lure him in? Hardly. This is Robert Lorenz’s first movie as director. But Lorenz has been assistant director on 26 pictures, including eight of Clint’s (“Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby,” among them), so I assume Eastwood’s thanking the kid or throwing him a bone. Which is a nice move.
Or maybe Eastwood was drawn in by the script? It’s another estranged daughter tale, to go with Laura Linney in “Absolute Power” and the unseen daughter in “Million Dollar Baby.” Clint likes being trailed after by young, smart, talkative women who allow him to do his incredulous, almost Vaudevillian slow burn. Think Tyne Daly, Geneviève Bujold, Bernadette Peters, Rene Russo, Laura Dern, Hilary Swank.
Now it’s Amy Adams as Mickey (named for Mantle), whom Gus (Eastwood), a legendary scout in the Atlanta Braves organization, more-or-less raised himself when his wife died young. Well, “raised.” Now and again, he shunted her off to relatives, which is why she’s in therapy and has trouble committing to men. But at least she’s a top-notch lawyer on the partner track. Unfortunately the name partners at her firm are led by Bob Gunton, the guy who played the asshole warden in “Shawshank Redemption,” so you know she’s going to get the old scroogie, even though it’s 2012 and this law firm doesn’t yet have a female partner. Like it’s 1981 or something. Like it’s a Hollywood studio or something.
Gus, who signed Ralph Garr, Dusty Baker, Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine—basically anyone worth a damn in the Braves system— is in his 80s now, and there are these nerdy sabermetricians hanging around with their computers, and, oops, his ophthalmologist diagnoses him with macular degeneration just as the organization sends him to North Carolina to scout a potential first-round draft pick. Does he fess up? Nah. He puts himself before the organization. He goes. But Director of Scouting and good friend Pete Klein (John Goodman) figures out what’s up and sends Mickey after him even though she’s, you know, estranged and all, and needs to close a big deal to make partner. But she goes, fuming and checking her Blackberry.
While in North Carolina, they run into Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a former flame-thrower whom Gus scouted back in the day, but who tore his rotator cuff after being traded to the Boston Red Sox. He’s now scouting for the Sox, and, for some reason, despite being a newbie, and despite wanting to be an announcer, he’s there to check out the Sox’s potential No. 1 draft pick. Seems everyone is after this kid. Or at least the Red Sox and the Braves, who have the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks, respectively.
As for the dude they’re all scouting? Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill)? We quickly find out the following:
- He’s a major asshole.
- He’s a bit tubby for someone in their late teens. Five-tool? More like five-meal.
- His homeruns are hardly mammoth. Despite the aluminum bat, they only land a couple rows deep.
Gus and Mickey, meanwhile, stay at The Grey Squirrel Motel, run by a nice Hispanic woman who has two sons: one about 8, the other, named Rigo (Jay Galloway), about 18 going on 25. At one point, Rigo, selling peanuts at the local stadium, has to toss some to Bo, who’s being an asshole, and he throws them pretty hard.
See if you can guess where this is going.
My early guess: the asshole sabermetrician will want Bo, Gus will see some problem (maybe that he has ...I don’t know... trouble with the curve?), and recommend against, but offer up Rigo, the flame-throwing Hispanic kid, instead.
All of this comes to pass. Or nearly. Gus, with macular degeneration, hears that Bo has trouble with the curve, which is confirmed by Mickey, who sees his hands drift. Gus counsels against Bo, and even tells this to Johnny, his rival. For some reason, the Sox listen to the kid and pass on Bo; but the Braves’ GM, Vince (Robert Patrick), ignores both Gus and Pete Klein, and assumes Phillip Sanderson, the asshole sabermetrician who cuckolded George Clooney, knows what he’s talking about, and picks tubbo. The Sox, thinking they’ve been cuckolded, fire Johnny, which leads Johnny to think Gus and Mickey tricked him, which leads to scenes and recriminations and revelations, including the real reason Gus shunted off Mickey to relatives. For some reason this doesn’t bring father and daughter closer together. But it allows Mickey the moment to hear, and then see, and then catch, Rigo, the nice, flamethrowing Hispanic kid; and it’s Mickey who brings him to Turner Field to face Bo, who is hitting batting-practice pitches into the stands for the local press. It take Rigo all of five pitches (two fastballs, three curves) to dismantle the Braves’ No. 1 pick. In the process, Rigo is compared to 1) Sandy Koufax, 2) Steve Carlton and 3) Randy Johnson, and Mickey, who, yes, got the old scroogie from the warden at Shawshank, becomes Rigo’s agent. Johnny returns, he and Mickey kiss, and we get our happy, Hollywood ending.
It’s a long, slow trek to the obvious. It’s painful to watch.
It's also ironic, since it unintentionally disproves its point about scouts. “Scouts, good scouts, are the heart of the game,” Gus says. “Anyone who uses a computer doesn’t know a damn thing about the game,” Gus says.
Yet haven’t these guys been to this town in North Carolina before to scout kids? They’re creatures of habit, too. They sit in their same seats, go the same dive bars, and, one assumes, check into the same motels. Which means Gus, and maybe some of the other old-timey scouts, including Ed Lauter, Chelcie Ross and Raymond Anthony Thomas, have hung out before at The Grey Squirrel Motel. And they never noticed the hulking lefthander, close cousin to Sandy Koufax, playing catch with his little brother?
The stats vs. scouts argument is an ongoing one among baseball nerds. I’ve written before that I think Billy Beane, the protagonist of “Moneyball,” was right in adopting the sabermetric lessons of Bill James, but wrong in interpreting the lessons of his own life, including his aversion to scouting. I’ve written that a more balanced approach between the two is probably the best approach. But one area where the Moneyball people have it over scouting people? “Moneyball” was a major league movie. This thing can’t hit its way out of A ball.
Movie Review: End of Watch (2012)
This is what I knew going into “End of Watch.” It’s what I’d read on IMDb.com a few hours before showtime:
Two young officers are marked for death after confiscating a small cache of money and firearms from the members of a notorious cartel, during a routine traffic stop.
So you wait for that story to begin. You see our guys, Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena), from the perspective of their patrol-car camera, chasing suspects and engaging in gun battle. You see them return to duty after a month-long investigation that clears them, even as the Captain reminds the troops that “an on-the-job shooting is always considered a homicide.” In this manner, Brian and Mike go back on patrol. At one stop in south central LA, Mike gets into it with an old-time gangster (Cle Shaheed Sloan) and fights him—Brian laughing all the while—but earns his respect by 1) winning, and 2) not pulling rank. At another stop, Brian and Mike guard an abandoned, burned-out SUV used in a drive-by shooting. It’s Mexican gangsters taking over from African-American gangsters just as homicide detectives take control of the crime scene from Brian and Mike, who are given police-tape duty. Everyone has their turf battles. They guard the scene for two hours while the detectives work. “Comfortable footwear,” Mike tells Van Hauser (David Harbour), the cop who relieves them. “Policing is all about comfortable footwear.” You see them investigate a missing kids case, finding two stoned adults in the living room and the kids duct-taped in a closet. Afterwards you see Brian in a distant shot overlooking LA, crouching. It’s a kind of exhale.
Brian often films what they do, so a lot of what we see is of the found-footage variety. He’s ... pre-law? Dating various girls. But he’s tired of it. Date 1, they kiss by the door. Date 2, they get it on. Date 3, they have nothing to say. “I want a smart girl,” he says. Mike, the voice of the men in the audience, has no sympathy. What Brian sees as his problem—too much sex with too many women—is not a problem; it’s the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the men in the audience.
But Brian finds his smart girl, Janet (Anna Kendrick), with a master’s in fluid hydraulics, and we get this exchange:
Mike: Did you run her?
Brian: Yeah, she’s clean.
Love that. Googling for cops. We see Brian and Janet sleep together, and the next morning she films herself going through his wallet. A list of girls’ numbers? “You won’t be needing this anymore,” she says, plucking it out. Love that, too.
On night patrol, Brian and Mike face down some partying Mexican gangsters, the ones who did the drive-by, including Big Evil (Maurice Compte), with his blank death stare. Just a Mexican/American stand-off but one assumes it anticipates a third-act confrontation. Later they bust one of his men, carrying drug money in a soup pot and a glittery AK-47 in the back of his pickup. “Liberace’s AK,” they call it. Brian talks about the three essential food groups of patrol: money, drugs and guns. Now they just need the drugs. “The ghetto will provide,” Mike says, not unhappily.
At this point in the story it’s all very episodic. Brian and Mike save kids in a burning building, receive medals of valor from the city, and afterwards, on patrol in a convenience store, talk about how they don’t feel like heroes. Both Janet, and Mike’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez), chastise their men for risking their lives to save other people’s kids. But that’s the job. Brian takes Janet to the Philharmonic. Mike and Gabby have a kid. Brian and Janet get engaged, then married. “You’ve got a lot of heart hooking up with a cop,” Mike tells Janet during the wedding toast, adding, “We’re all happy you can make a man out of Brian because we’ve about given up.”
All the while, our two heroes, who don’t know who the true villains of the movie are, bust each other’s balls on patrol while busting perps. And each time they go out, we wonder: OK, is this when the story starts?
In this home, they find illegals imprisoned in a backroom, and a towering DEA agent descends upon them, saying, “You guys fucked up.” In another home, they find a 70-year-old woman in a plastic bag in a back closet. Further in, they come across a room of cut-up bodies, like a scene out of “The Killing Fields.” They find cocaine, too. Shortly afterwards, via infrared camera, we see and hear the drug cartel leader, most likely in Mexico, talking on the phone. “This is just two city cops,” he says. “Take care of those assholes,” he says. Is the DEA doing the filming? Will they warn our guys? They don’t. The original gangster, whom Mike fights at the beginning, does. He heard from a dude in prison. They laugh it off. “We’re cops. Everybody wants to kill us.” Then they forget it. They’re back to shooting the shit. They’re being tailed and they’re arguing about rubber bands.
By the time the final showdown occurs, way into the third act, we’ve realized, “This is the movie.” It’s them in the patrol car and them doing their jobs and them living their lives. After the final showdown, after the shooting gallery and the police funeral, Brian, arm in a sling, looking wrecked, has to speak at Mike’s funeral—just as Mike spoke at his wedding. “He was my brother,” Brian begins, then pauses. The pause continues and fills the room. Finally, he leaves the podium. Even if he could say more, that’s all that needs to be said.
Even after all that, we get them one more time on patrol: a flashback to the day of the shooting. One braces oneself. Will it explain things retroactively? Give a clue to the doings of the Mexican drug cartel? Perhaps indicate a betrayal? No. It’s just them shooting the shit and laughing. It drives home what the movie is, and it’s a reminder of what was lost.
“End of Watch,” written and directed by David Ayer (“Training Day”; “Harsh Times”), is powerful, original, funny and terrifying. It feels as authentic as anything that’s been filmed about cops. It’s the coppiest of cop movies without being close to a copy. True, our guys run into more trouble in a year than most cops do in a lifetime; but the tone is right, the dialogue and acting so natural they verge on improvisational, and the vernacular so specific to police work you almost need a lexicon to understand what’s being said.
As for the Mexican drug cartel? It keeps on. Mike dies, it lives. He dies not even knowing the story he was in.
One wonders if this isn’t a healthier ending than the wish-fulfillment fantasies Hollywood provides, or the kind of catharsis Aristotle recommended. We get no catharsis here, no justice, so maybe we search for it elsewhere. Maybe we try to make it happen elsewhere. At the least, “End of Watch” is a movie everyone who funds the illegal drug trade should see. Because no matter how much damage drugs do to you, the real damage isn’t done to you.
Movie Review: Battleship (2012)
The big question in alien invasion movies is generally: What’s their major malfunction? In “War of the Worlds,” it was bacteria. In “Signs,” water. Here? They’re biped lizard creatures so they’re vulnerable to ... wait for it ... sunlight. For creatures attacking Earth, that’s a little less dopey than water but not by much. Sunlight is bad for them so they go to Hawaii? What’s the matter with Seattle? Even Edward was smart enough to hang on the Olympic peninsula.
I’d heard “Battleship” had been unjustly sunk by critics and audiences. I’d heard it was better than that. Or at least better than the “Transformers” movies. Which is like saying a number is bigger than zero.
IMDb.com is actually helpful in this regard. It lets us know that People who liked this also liked ... and then a list: Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” “Battle Los Angeles,” “I Am Four,” and “Green Lantern.” A film festival in hell.
So why do these aliens come here in the first place? Because scientists send a signal into outer space inviting them. Stupid scientists. Brainiacs. With their brains.
Who’s our protagonist? An impetuous ne’er-do-well named Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), who has an older, steadier brother in the Navy, Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), and who, because he’s trying to impress a girl in a bar who looks like a supermodel (supermodel Brooklyn Decker), winds up with a choice between prison and the Navy. He goes Navy with his brother. He also goes with the supermodel. She’s actually a physical therapist. She’s also the Admiral’s daughter. For a change.
Then the aliens land and everything that was wrong about Alex turns out to be right. He’s the wrong guy in peace but the right guy in war. His steady brother buys it early (loser), his Japanese antagonist, Capt. Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano of “Ichi the Killer” fame), becomes his comrade, and he hangs with a petty officer who looks like a supermodel (supermodel and singer Rihanna). Together they take on the aliens.
The assumption, made early and often, is that the one alien ship that burned up entering our atmosphere was the communication ship; so the aliens are going to use our communications system to contact the home planet with the message, “Bring more. Easy pickings.”
How do we know this is the message they want to send back? We don’t. How do we know they’re not scared and asking for help? Because that would involve empathy, dude, and they’re fucking lizard creatures. In fucking warships. What are you—a fucking scientist? A brainiac? With your brain?
Still, one wonders at what point the aliens’ message would continue to be: easy pickings. After they’ve lost one ship? Two? Four of the five? Just before their final ship is blown up by a decommissioned battleship, the U.S.S. Missouri, and its crew of hotheads and supermodels and geriatric war veterans? It’s all so stupid. We’re paranoid that the aliens are going to attack in greater numbers with their superior technology, but their technology isn’t superior. They get beat by octogenarians.
So, rah rah, we win. Hopper gets promoted, Rihanna gets wet (no umber-ella), the crippled war vet finds a purpose, and the cowardly scientist demonstrates a modicum of courage at the right Han Solo moment.
Brainiacs with their brains fuck it up but gung-ho military sorts sort it out. Yet another liberal message from the liberal folks in liberal Hollywood.
Movie Review: Cosmopolis (2012)
In 10th grade I wrote a small play, full of symbolism, a new word for me back then, about a kid who takes a ride on a department store elevator, which we performed in Mr. Wolk’s English class. The different floors were supposed to represent the different stages of the kid’s life, etc., until he arrived at the top floor, where, of course ...
I think I got a B-.
“Cosmopolis,” directed by David Cronenberg, and based upon a novel by Don DeLillo, is a dreamlike limousine ride through New York City that is representative of a life. During the course of the day-long journey, the 28-year-old billionaire assets manager in the backseat, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), loses everything—tie, jacket, wife, fortune—then arrives at the end of the line, where, of course... Or I should say maybe...? Cronenberg doesn’t pull the trigger.
I’ll give him a B-.
Packer is in a stretch limo in the first place, with bodyguards patrolling the perimeter, to get a haircut across town. But he keeps running into obstacles. The president is in town (“The president of the United States,” he’s told, when he asks which president), so traffic’s a bitch. Then there’s an anti-corporate protest against corporate mucky-mucks like him—more Battle in Seattle than Occupy Wall Street—and a funeral for a Sufi rap star. As a result, the limo, moving slowly downtown, becomes his rolling office. People enter and exit like they’ve been waiting on the sidewalk all day.
His first seatmate is his start-up partner, Shiner (Jay Baruchel), who feels left behind. He can’t keep up. Neither can we, really. There’s technobabble talk of a “bot” that keeps getting faster and faster in exploiting market inefficiencies, until it, and Packer, never live in the present. They’re always in the future. Or futures. Doesn’t he say this? “Why can I see the future?” Packer asks. Or does he say “can’t”? Early on, Packer sounds like Holden Caulfield with the ducks when he wonders where all the white limos go at the end of the day. Shiner sounds like Fenwick in “Diner” when he says, “You ever get the feeling you don’t know what’s going on?”
Other seatmates include a 22-year-old whiz kid who’s still excited by the numbers (Philip Nozuka); a doctor there for Packer’s daily checkup; and an older French mistress (Juliette Binoche), whom he fucks in the backseat, and who tells him of an available Rothko when he’s interested in a chapel, an entire chapel, that he wants to buy and put in his condo. Whole. They talk over the efficacy and morality of this.
She: People need to see it.
He: Let them buy it. Let them outbid me.
Packer always asks his seatmates “What else?” because he feeds off information even though the most basic information—the president’s in town, one of his favorite singers has died—escapes him. “What do you do exactly?” Elise (Sarah Gadon) asks him at one point. “You know things. I think this is what you do. I think you acquire information and turn it into something awful.” She’s his wife, we find out. At first I thought she was merely a taxi-cab pick up. Then I realized: no, she’s his fiancée. At the diner, she’s his wife, and by the end they’re divorced. A life together in a limo ride. Modern life.
Some of the conversational back-and-forth is fascinating. (“When I was four,” he tells Elise, “I figured out how much I weighed on all the planets in the solar system.”) Other times, it merely sounds like clever tweets. (“Talent is more erotic when it’s wasted.”) Throughout, nobody really listens to anyone. It’s like a “Seinfeld” conversation except dreamy, gloomy, and not funny.
Let’s ask the basic question of Packer that we ask of all of our protagonists: What does the guy want? I don’t know. I’m not sure he knows. He seems to be a man trying to feel something again. That’s why the limo ride to the haircut in the first place. It’s where he got his haircuts when he was a kid. Since Packer lives in the future, or futures, where nothing can be felt, he tries to feel via his past. His present certainly isn’t doing it for him. In the backseat of the stretch limo, which looks like the inside of the Batmobile, and which he initially rides as if he’s Capt. Kirk on the U.S.S. Enterprise, he does whatever he can to feel something. He screws his mistress (Julie Binoche) and has a lengthy prostate exam (his prostate is asymmetrical). Later he screws one of his security guards (Patricia McKenzie) in a nearby hotel, which Cronenberg films as if it’s as cramped and claustrophobic as the limo. When anti-capitalist forces rock the limo, Packer doesn’t react. As he’s losing his fortune, Packer doesn’t react...much. Some critics blame Pattinson for this but it’s obviously the point. What can make him feel again? Why not get out of the limo and walk? He’s the boy-king, trapped, and eventually he kills his bodyguard and dismisses his driver and stands in the dirty streets where an assassin, Beno Levin, (Paul Giamatti), an ex-employee, takes potshots at him. Only then does he come alive again. For a moment. But the confrontation with Levin is a letdown. Levin’s motivation, he says, “is not original.” Eventually Packer shoots his own hand. Then he feels something. But not enough. The awful dreamlike state continues. Until it doesn’t.
Cronenberg does dreamlike well, of course, and the movie’s themes (wealth inequality, living the future, creating a life that speeds past us) are all extremely relevant. But early on I didn’t care what was happening, and I never got back to caring. The man who feels nothing is a dull protagonist. Other people’s dreams are a drag. I also felt about Packer’s ride the way Packer felt about Levin’s motivation. It’s not very original. See: “The Swimmer,” “Heart of Darkness,” “A Face in the Crowd,” and my 10th-grade play.