I’ve really missed watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt perform. It’s a thought that regularly crossed my mind throughout Mr. Corman, a comedy-drama Apple TV Plus show created, directed by and starring the multi-talented actor.
A couple of supporting roles in Netflix productions, plus portraying the main character in action-thriller flick 7500, aside, Gordon-Levitt has been conspicuous in his absence in recent years.
With Mr. Corman – his first major TV role since 3rd Rock from the Sun ended in 2001 – Gordon-Levitt offers a welcome reminder of his multifaceted artistry in an emotionally engaging, musical-inspired and at-times dark comedy drama that subliminally coerces viewers to reflect on their own lives.
Mr. Corman stars Gordon-Levitt as Josh Corman, a 30-something failed musician-turned-fifth grade teacher who struggles to find happiness and purpose in a world that, in Josh’s view, severely lacks both.
On the surface, Mr. Corman appears to be a TV series that we’ve seen and heard countless times before. Josh is an unhappy soul whose sadness is self-inflicted and, throughout the course of the series, he’ll come to terms with his issues and learn to appreciate life again, right?
In a way, yes – but what sets Mr. Corman apart from similar tales of self-discovery is that it feels real through its relatable protagonist.
Instantaneously, audiences will resonate with Josh through his myriad of problems. He has dysfunctional relationships with his family and friends, failed to turn his rock star dreams into a reality, and struggles to find connections in a world through his negative outlook on life.
At times, Josh comes across as a dislikable, tiresome and selfish individual with a loser’s attitude – but you can’t help but root or feel sorry for him. Gordon-Levitt’s natural charisma helps in this regard but, as we find out why Josh is the way he is (and how he comes to suffer from anxiety and loneliness), it’s difficult not to want him to turn over a new leaf and find some semblance of inner peace and success.
That isn’t to say that Mr. Corman is inherently dramatic or gloomy throughout. The show is funny through its awkwardness, particularly as Josh navigates the pitfalls of adult life – dealing with his fifth graders’ parents, dating and one-night stands, and watching those around him achieve success while he doesn’t. Its cringe humor is reminiscent of Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office and, while it doesn’t hold a candle to either, Mr. Corman has its moments. A scene involving a homemade weighted blanket and an episode centered around a Halloween party are genuine laugh-out-loud moments, providing light relief to events that precede or follow them.
The inclusion of daydream-like sequences in Mr. Corman, too, is a welcome change of pace to watching Josh as he frequently sabotages his own attempts at happiness.
Akin to magazine clipping collages seen in art student scrapbooks – hybridized with animation to bring them to life – Mr. Corman’s fantasy settings are an aesthetic delight. Often acting as the backdrop to events that precede their arrival, every escapism-inspired scene is visually bold, colorful and imaginative.
One such sequence is superhero, comic book and video game-esque in its style and creativity (a clever use of genres and industries that have seen notable upticks in interest over the past decade), while another acts as the stage to a musical number – a callback to Josh’s primary passion in life – performed by the titular character and his mom.
There’s even a whole episode that explores how Josh’s life might have played out if he’d made different decisions throughout it. It’s like the 1998 rom-com flick Sliding Doors, if Gwyneth Paltrow’s Helen had a door for every life decision she made. Regardless, these hallucination-style sequences make for compelling contrasts to the mundane and muted palettes of Josh’s real world.
A TV show’s plot and visuals are all well and good, but what of Mr. Corman’s cast, and Gordon-Levitt’s performance in particular?
Gordon-Levitt is on top form here. Delivering a humorously deadpan, powerfully emotional portrayal of someone who feels trapped despite life’s seemingly infinite offerings, the actor pulls from previously stellar performances, including 500 Days of Summer and Don Jon, to bring Josh to life in relatable fashion. Not only that, but it feels like Gordon-Levitt is drawing on his own life experiences to play the role, too. It’s a personal project that he is heavily involved in, so it would be unsurprising if his own life wasn’t intertwined with Josh’s.
Not to be overshadowed, though, Mr. Corman’s supporting cast ably backs Gordon-Levitt up. Ted Lasso’s Juno Temple, Shadowlands’ Debra Winger and Narcos’ Arturo Castro shine as Josh’s ex-girlfriend, mother and roommate respectively, with the trio regularly challenging Josh’s beliefs and worldview.
It’s the episode-stealing performance of Hugo Weaving (Lord of the Rings, The Matrix) as Josh’s deadbeat father, though, that’s the highlight of the series’ guest stars. Gordon-Levitt and Weaving’s rapport is a sight to behold – and you can really feel how fractious their relationship is and why Josh, like his dad, is simply drifting through life.
With so much ingenuity and emotion, and a plethora of relatable characters, it’s a bit of a shame that Mr. Corman’s ending feels slightly off key.
Without diving into spoilers, it’s a semi-satisfying conclusion that seems like it could have had a bit more of an impact. The show’s finale leaves things open enough for a second season if one is forthcoming – but the lack of a definitive ending doesn’t provide much closure if this is the end of our journey with Josh.
What we think
Mr. Corman is another excellent entry in Apple TV Plus’ growing back catalog. It’s a touching and amusing show that will take you on a journey of introspection and urge you to question if you’re happy with your own lot in life.
It’s a pleasant surprise to see Gordon-Levitt revisit his TV roots and, alongside Apple and US indie entertainment publisher A24, craft an entertaining and emotive tale with compelling characters that examines life’s complexities and how we deal with them.
If we’ve learned anything about Apple TV Plus, it’s that we shouldn’t dismiss its show lineup as there are plenty of hidden gems within (we’re looking at you, Ted Lasso). Mr. Corman certainly deserves a chance and, based on its accessible story, believable characters, fantasy-fuelled escapism and dark humor, it’s well worth a weekend binge watch once it’s fully released.
Mr. Corman’s first two episodes will launch exclusively on Apple TV Plus on Friday, August 6 with future episodes released weekly.