REVIEW: Mr. Corman Creates a Compelling & Meditative Character Study
Josh Bell
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mr. Corman
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mr. Corman
Apple TV+'s Mr. Corman is centered around Josh Corman, a fifth-grade teacher and a frustrated musician. However, the series starring, written, and created by Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn't about teaching or music. It's tough to pinpoint exactly what Mr. Corman is about, but the show is consistently engaging even when its plot doesn't seem to be going anywhere in particular. Gordon-Levitt clearly has a stylish vision. Even if that vision doesn't always come together, one of the show's greatest strengths is it's impossible to predict what it'll do next.
Mr. Corman opens with a relatively conventional pilot, establishing Gordon-Levitt's Josh Corman as a somewhat aimless guy experiencing an early midlife crisis. He's dedicated to his teaching job and clearly cares about his students, but he's also still not over a break-up that happened a year earlier and seems to have drained all of his previous enthusiasm for creating music. The first episode follows Josh at work, at home with his best friend and roommate Victor (Broad City's Arturo Castro), and an unsuccessful hook-up with a woman he met at a bar. To start off, it's fairly standard stuff, but Gordon-Levitt makes Josh appealing and sympathetic, rather than just another sad LA straight dude who fancies himself an artist.
Arturo Castro and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mr. Corman
Arturo Castro and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mr. Corman
However, there are moments in Mr. Corman's debut episode that indicate there's something more going on in Josh's mind than just heartache or writer's block. He sometimes stares off into the distance, seeing bright lights surrounding random people. When he gets in an argument with his potential hook-up and she slaps him, he sees literal stars and takes a brief detour into an animated fantasy world. Those surreal touches increase as the 10-episode season progresses, and Josh's struggles with anxiety become more prominent.
Mr. Corman isn't just a show about mental illness, although Episode 2 has a pitch-perfect depiction of having an anxiety attack. By the end of the season, it's not entirely clear what value these fanciful interludes in Josh's mind provide. Mr. Corman is at its best as a more grounded character study of Josh and of the people in his life. Josh's concerns are mostly mundane, and even his thwarted musical ambitions are portrayed as practical considerations rather than grand artistic visions. He's looking for basic fulfillment both in his job and in his personal life, and he sometimes finds it; although, more often than not, he doesn't.
Debra Winger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mr. Corman
Debra Winger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mr. Corman
Gordon-Levitt, who wrote and/or directed many of the episodes, approaches the material with boldness that's admirable even when it doesn't quite pay off. Mr. Corman breaks its format early on, with a fourth episode dedicated almost entirely to Victor, relegating Josh to a supporting character and giving Castro a well-deserved dramatic spotlight. Later in the season, an episode made up of kaleidoscopic alternate-reality visions is less successful, in part, because the show hasn't given viewers enough time to get to know the characters to appreciate their potential divergent paths in life.
Gordon-Levitt has recruited an impressive supporting cast to play the people in Josh's life, including Debra Winger as his well-meaning but, at times, inconsiderate mother, and Shannon Woodward as his high-strung sister. Juno Temple takes the spotlight later in the season as Josh's ex-fiancee and former musical collaborator, and rapper Logic (credited as "introducing Bobby Hall") makes an assured acting debut as a self-doubting social media influencer whom Josh resents and admires. Characters come and go somewhat haphazardly (even Victor doesn't appear in every episode), which makes it a bit tough to get a handle on them, but the actors bring depth to each scene they're in, and the writing suggests layers to the characters beyond what the audience sees.
But Mr. Corman is really Gordon-Levitt's show, and he's fascinating to watch, demonstrating Josh's charisma and empathy along with his anguish and insecurity. There's a lot more range to Mr. Corman than there was to Gordon-Levitt's debut feature film as a writer and director, 2013's Don Jon, which awkwardly mixed broad comedy with serious examinations of addiction and toxic masculinity. The series format allows Gordon-Levitt to take more detours and devote more time to his thoughtful portrayals of mental health and relationships. He's matured as a creator in the intervening years, just as Josh is slowly maturing as a person.
Mr. Corman is also a showcase of Gordon-Levitt's musical talents. As Josh slowly gets back to creating his own music, the show also features occasional original songs in its fantasy sequences, including a Broadway-style duet between Winger and Gordon-Levitt. He's clearly a multi-talented creator, and even in its most jumbled or chaotic moments, Mr. Corman remains a fascinating glimpse into the mind of both its main character and its star.
Mr. Corman premieres Friday, Aug. 6 on Apple TV+, with new episodes debuting each Friday.