Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Looper." (Sony Pictures )
In early 2008, I met with a young director named Rian Johnson at a cafe in Los Angeles. A few years before Johnson had created a small buzz with a clever modern noir called "Brick," and shortly after would endure the disappointment of a con-man black comedy he wrote and directed, known as "The Brothers Bloom."
But Johnson was most excited to talk about a film that at that point existed only in his mind. Titled "Looper," it involved a hit man who dispatched marks sent back from the future, then got into a world of trouble when he allowed his latest mark -- his future self -- to escape. To explain the movie's plot, Johnson spiritedly scribbled on one napkin, then another, then a third.
It sounded like a deliciously complex idea -- too complex. I left impressed with Johnson but thinking that the film was a pipe dream that would have trouble making it out of that cafe, let alone reaching a mainstream American audience.
Cut to the fall of 2012, and not only was the film produced (by means of an unusual coalition of the independent companies Endgame Entertainment and FilmDistrict, the studio Sony Pictures and a Chinese production entity) but became a wide-release that brought out a few million people to see it on opening weekend for a total of $21.2 million in box office.
How did "Looper" pull off that feat? You could point to several factors -- the growing appeal of Johnson's go-to star Joseph Gordon-Levitt; a shrewd marketing campaign that made the movie seem, well, just commercial enough; a smart piece of dating in a soft September.
But it's hard not to think of another factor, and an encouraging one at that: that the movie's intelligence, far from being an impediment, was actually one of the reasons for its success.
After all, as my colleague Amy Kaufman wrote, nearly three-quarters of the audience was over the age of 25, a sign that, unlike other high-concept-y Hollywood movies, "Looper" played primarily to an adult audience. It also drew extremely strong reviews, something that one usually associates with smart movies.
Maybe most crucial in proving this theory is that "Looper" is hardly an isolated case. The last few years have seen a stream of fiercely intelligent genre pics that have performed strongly.
In one sense, yes, this is a fallow time for various genres, such as horror (can't wait for "Silent Hill: Revelation" and "Paranormal Activity 4"). But a group of upscale indie-minded directors -- people who may have been making period dramas in a different filmmaking climate -- have been turning their attention to genre movies and doing their part to show what else is possible. They acknowledge their respective genres' parameters, then cleverly shatter them.
Just a few examples: Darren Aronofsky and the stalker/horror picture with "Black Swan," Nicolas Refn and the car-chase action thriller in "Drive," Johnson and his new time-travel/hit-man movie. And of course there's the granddaddy of the Rubik’s Cube movie, Christopher Nolan's "Memento."
In all these cases, the results were not only creatively satisfying but financially successful. Sometimes we like our genre flicks mindless -- but plenty of us, plenty of the time, like them smart and complicated.
It's hard to know if this will continue or has been a series of happy accidents. Sometimes Hollywood gets things right despite itself. Still, every time someone makes a smart genre movie, it not only gives us reason to turn out to theaters but provides Hollywood one more reason to keep making them.
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