Plot: A deep cut into the days and nights of a public school teacher in the San Fernando Valley.
Review: Over the course of his career, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has gone from child actor (3rd Rock From The Sun, Angels in the Outfield) to indie darling (500 Days of Summer, Looper) to big-budget wunderkind (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises). Through all of that, he has also managed to make comedies, foster an entire online community via his HitRecord website, and direct the well-received Don Jon. Now, at 40 years old, Gordon-Levitt has created a series that epitomizes all of his creative talents into one chronicle of an average man searching for meaning in a world of ennui. Mr. Corman is a showcase for his skills as a writer, director, and actor despite not being nearly as funny as it thinks it is.
The pairing of Joseph Gordon-Levitt with indie powerhouse A24 comes with expectations that this series largely fulfills. Financed by Apple, Mr. Corman benefits from having a budget far higher than if it had been a feature film or on any other streaming platform. Spread over 10 episodes, this is a fairly intimate collection of moments from the life of a man struggling to find his place in the world. In each chapter, we learn a little more about who Josh Corman is beyond his failed music career, day job as a middle school teacher, and overall lack of romantic prospects. This is all coupled with fantastic elements, including animation, musical numbers, and even an impending asteroid representing his anxiety.
Mr. Corman presents the epitome of characters played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The polar opposite of the manic pixie dream girl motif, Josh Corman is a depressed anxious Millennial male dealing with everything from absentee fathers to online dating, erectile dysfunction to mental health, failed ambitions, and much more. This series could easily be written off as being focused on a whiny, privileged white male complaining about his life while others are suffering far worse, but it should instead be looked at as a portrait of an average person dissatisfied with their station in life who struggles to blame anyone but himself. His journey to mental health and acceptance takes him on a roundabout journey to understanding his place in the world and whether or not everyone truly matters.
What could have made a quaint indie film is expanded to over five hours which some may find to be tedious, but I thoroughly enjoyed. Not a whole lot happens over the course of this story with many sequences focused on everyday moments in Josh’s life like a child’s birthday party, phone conversations with call center operators, and interactions with friends and family. What helps is Gordon Levitt’s ensemble cast including the always great Debra Winger, Hugo Weaving, Juno Temple, and Jamie Chung. The standout is Arturo Castro who plays Josh’s roommate, Victor. Castro has done great work in series like Narcos and Silicon Valley but shines as a mirror to Josh’s loneliness but for many different reasons. The scenes the two actors share are a highlight, but Castro gets to shine in the fourth episode that is centered entirely on his character.
Where Mr. Corman succeeds mostly is in achieving the story that Don Jon failed to tell. Gordon-Levitt inhabited both characters deftly, but Don Jon had him physically transform into his character while Josh Corman seems much more of a natural performance. All of the actors here feel like real people having real conversations, punctuated by moments of authenticity that are blended with fantastical and surreal accents. The first episode showcases a scene at a nightclub where a conversation is set in a long take that rotates around the characters in a beautifully achieved moment of filmmaking. Later in that same episode, an argument ends with a sudden shift into an animated sequence that displaced the viewer as much as it fits right into the tone of the entire series.
As a series, Mr. Corman does require some commitment from the viewer as watching it in the weekly episode release format that Apple uses may make things feel like they are dragging. Being able to watch the series in a single sitting gave me a more cohesive experience of what Joseph Gordon-Levitt was going for. Individually, these episodes have a lot of ideas going on. Like HitRecord projects, Mr. Corman is a combination of a lot of good ideas that work independently but don’t always equal a complete project. There is a lot to like here, especially the performances by the entire cast, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This is a story that evokes memories of the actor’s other work, especially 500 Days of Summer and Don Jon. It works as a collection of moments and ideas, scenes and feelings, but taken all together it just comes up short of being as good as it could have been.
Mr. Corman premieres on August 6th on AppleTV+.