What is happy, sad, and weird at the same time? Above all things, life. And with these things comes director Jonathan Levine, who can tackle multi-dimensional layers and churn them with a gooey center of complexities when he tries.
A native New Yorker, Levine honed his faceted style in agreement with a Jewish upper-middle class upbringing in the city. His alternative persona took him to Brown University and then the American Film Institute, where his success rolled into motion. In 2006, Levine’s Everybody Loves Mandy Lane gained notable recognition. Mandy Lane is new at school and gets invited to a weekend party on an empty ranch. Complexities in Mandy’s character give way to a turn of events at the party when the revelers begin to drop one by one. With Mandy Lane, Levine was early and thus still crude in his craft. He had won the hearts of investors thus far but wasn’t keen on his own storytelling voice quite yet. The film was familiar, like it was going through the same motions of a scream flick with hyper-attractive teenagers. Like I could have replaced each character with low-grade female and male Megan Fox derivatives and called it a day. All this to say I had seen this movie many times before.
It wasn’t until 2008 with The Wackness that Levine revealed his underrated capabilities. Levine brings the New York City he knows best in The Wackness to its arguably most memorable element: gritty, humid, weed everywhere; saggy Tommy Hilfiger jeans and gold-plated door knocker earrings; 90’s hip hop at its peak and not a Starbucks in sight. The film’s casting is like a punch line to its period piece aura. Josh Peck (a once chubby-faced product of the Disney Channel) is Lucas – the film’s archetypical angst-ridden, high school-hating, pot-dealing protagonist. Adding depth to the lineup are recognizable faces including Sir Ben Kingsley, Mary-Kate Olsen, and iconic rapper Method Man, who play Peck’s shrink, client buddy, and wholesale greens seller/mentor, respectively. The Wackness holds the character development of every coming-of-age film but adds in elements of loneliness, futility, and heart break that is a hard pill to swallow for even the most intelligent of audiences. Levine honed his craft into his own as The Wackness made a fine story of raw poignancy in the backdrop of a cool factor decade over which people still obsess.
Levine’s success of course brought him bigger, shinier commercial opportunities. In 2011, Seth Rogen and boyish Joseph Gordon-Levitt joined his team to make 50/50. In 50/50, Gordon-Levitt is Adam, the responsible protagonist given a 50/50 chance of survival after a spinal cancer diagnosis. He and friend Kyle (Rogen) traipse through thorny paths of sifting through life together when yet another complexity is tacked on to its repertoire. The multi-layered storytelling is still there. Gordon-Levitt displays a tremendous emotionality from the start; a car-bashing scene following a break-up not far into the start of the film nods to just that. But the complexity of the plotline was seemingly a familiar one again. I had heard this story of a dejected man finding himself through cancer before; but I was also prone to watching admittedly for the silly quips thrown by the already ticket-selling affable Rogen at the cutely helpless Gordon-Levitt.
More commercial movies and a stint at a network television show later, Levine gained his footing in Hollywood. But will the momentum of his career outstand his potential originality? Here’s to watching films I’ve yet to see.
Written by Dara Kim