Friday, September 27, 2013

Is Joseph Gordon-Levitt Really Leading-Man Material?

Posted By on Fri, Sep 27, 2013 at 10:46 AM

Don Jon movie Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Don Jon: Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the kind of following that could, at some point, turn him into a real-deal movie star; he's built up a resume of ambitious movies that also happen to be fairly popular, from the Nolan-helmed blockbusters Inception and The Dark Knight Rises to smaller genre successes like Looper, 500 Days of Summer, and 50/50. (Premium Rush should have fit into this category, but it was last summer's most fun movie to get dumped into a late-August release.) But like a lot of young-ish actors who make a play for leading-man status, JGL feels like a character actor at heart—even when performing his frequent lead roles. He certainly has presence and charisma, and can carry a mainstream-y movie like 50 or 500 without much strain. Emphasis on "much," because there is a tiny bit of visible strain in those two movies, even though Gordon-Levitt is good in them (and in the case of Summer, not at all what's wrong with the movie itself).

When he settles into a sweater-wearing regular-guy role, there's something a little overemphatic and self-conscious about him: in 50/50, he never settles down into actually bantering with Seth Rogen, and he seems happy to lean into the screenwriters' worst, cutest ideas of what a regular hipster-ish guy is like in 500 Days of Summer. You could see that when he hosted Saturday Night Live, too: he looked so eager to appear as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Good Sport Doing Sketches, that it lent an air of theatrical pretense even when he was showing off strong energy and timing. Yet in many of his movies, Gordon-Levitt all but disappears. The teenagers he plays in Mysterious Skin and Brick could not look or sound much less alike, and he played them within a year of each other; he's terrific in the townie noir The Lookout and channels Bruce Willis without turning into an impersonator in Looper; even in straight-arrow supporting parts for Nolan, he's perfectly natural. Don Jon puts the actor back front-and-center: he serves as writer, director, and star. That he's writing, directing, and starring in a romantic comedy of sorts sounds potentially hammy, and the trailer full of Joisey accents (including JGL's own) and Italian-American stereotypes does nothing to dispel that notion. But curiously, the broad accent and tanktop-based outfits auger well for Gordon-Levitt's talents as a chameleon. Frankly, even with the threat of condescension lingering in the air, I'd be a lot more worried if he chose to play this character as a cute version of "himself." Don Jon could still prove to be bust—Gordon-Levitt may well have channeled all of his self-conscious into the screenwriting and directing—but its star would do well to keep on shapeshifting regardless.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 movie cartoon
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2: The animation boom of the past five years hasn't really resulted in a greater number of high-quality mainstream cartoons than the pre-boom years. Though every major studio but professional half-timers Paramount now releases at least one cartoon per year, the metric is pretty much the same: Pixar movies will probably be very good; Disney Proper movies will probably be pretty or very good; one out of every two or three DreamWorks cartoons will be solid; the rest, meh (unless Aardman or Laika slips one past the gatekeepers). The situation is such that I almost didn't bother to see the first Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs when it hit in 2009; it looked like just another amplification of a children's book that didn't need the extra volume. But I eventually caught a double feature in Paris (!) with the then-unreleased-in-US stop-motion cartoon Mary and Max, and I was surprised by how charming I found this, yes, loud, but also silly and funny cartoon.

Lots of mainstream animation either chases Pixar and Disney by tugging insistently on heartstrings, or chases Looney Tunes by having everyone chatter and run around and smack into each other; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs can lay no claim to equaling even a second-tier 90 minutes of Looney Tunes, but it does have some of that silly energy that a lot of DreamWorks stuff converts into empty dialogue. Phil Lord and Chris Miller of the short-lived MTV cartoon Clone High wrote and directed it, then switched to live-action for 21 Jump Street before moving back to animation for a Lego movie coming out next year (which looks surprisingly funny; their MO seems to be making good studio comedies based on materials that should not make for good studio comedies). The sequel's new directors Kris Pearn and Cody Cameron have more standard animation-world work on their collective CV, so I have no idea if this unnecessary follow-up will make a similar surprise. But the character designs are appealing, and I can't say I didn't laugh at many of the food puns in the trailer.

Baggage Claim movie Paula Patton
Baggage Claim: In a premise that sounds suspiciously similar to—by which I mean exactly like—the little-liked romantic comedy What's My Number? (released on this very weekend in 2011), Paula Patton plays a flight attendant who visits with previous exes due to life-panic surrounding her younger sister's engagement while failing to realize the guy across the hall is really her soulmate. Seriously, it's Number minus the sex angle and Anna Faris—and that movie wasn't even a hit with those elements. There's little danger of lawsuit, I guess, because Fox made both movies; maybe this is the pilot for a new African-American Remake of Non-Prestige Catalog Titles program. If so, poor Kevin Hart and Mike Epps are going to have to star in something about an internship at Bing; Ice Cube will have to inherit the Billy Crystal role in a redo of Parental Guidance; and Morgan Freeman will have to suit up for Black Taken 2. Then again, maybe I shouldn't make fun: Baggage Claim is the first Fox Searchlight title with a mostly African-American cast since Beasts of the Southern Wild, and kicks off a fall slate that also includes 12 Years a Slave and Black Nativity (the title of which is why I don't feel too bad about calling my Morgan Freeman project Black Taken 2). Why, it's almost as if Fox (or at least its art-house division) is starting to understand that black folks go to the movies, too!

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