This week sees the release of Don Jon, a movie Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed and stars in. It's also a movie that received some great notices out of Sundance, including one from our own Erik Davis, who reviewed it in character with a New Jersey accent (listen here). He says it's hilarious and heartfelt, and while I haven't yet seen it I wondered how Gordon-Levitt's performance here weighs against those of his entire career. Yes, he's only 32, but he's been acting professionally since age four and in all that time he has played some distinctly varied roles.
Most people recall him first as the alien in a teen boy's body on Third Rock from the Sun, where his ever-precocious personality was (intentionally?) turned into a long-running joke because his character acted so much older than he looked. Go back even further, though, and he was the awkward kid George on a handful of episodes of Roseanne. That's likely where I first noticed him, though I'm sure I saw him in the even earlier episode of Family Ties where he bullies a deaf kid. Just in those TV gigs he showed a level of versatility before he'd even become a man that most actors never display in a lifetime.
Since growing up -- well, since reaching official adulthood -- Gordon-Levitt has worked in numerous genres, often the best and most unconventional of their kind. He proved to be a very capable romantic lead in (500) Days of Summer, a worthy superhero sidekick in The Dark Knight Rises, and he evoked Fred Astaire in one of the most memorable action sequences of this decade in Inception. Just look at how different he is in the high school movies 10 Things I Hate About You and Brick to get an indication of how he's not just another former child actor lucky enough to keep going.
He's also done a G.I. Joe movie, which, uh, whatever, hopefully afforded and allowed him to do more interesting jobs including Don Jon. Considering a lot of his best work is stuff few people have seen, such as Mysterious Skin -- the movie I first accepted him as a real talent to follow -- we can excuse the occasional so-so studio effort, and he really hasn't had to compromise much for Hollywood so far, managing to stick with great directors like Rian Johnson, Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg.
Sadly, I'm still a bit behind, needing to finally catch him in 50/50, Premium Rush and Treaure Planet -- in voice only. But I can still very easily pick out my three favorite performances by the actor so far.
Here are my top three Joseph Gordon-Levitt performances:
1. Hesher in Hesher - Also my pick for the most underrated movie of the past five years, this exceptional feature from Spencer Susser transforms the usually squeaky-clean-looking, baby-faced JGL into his most badass character since the aforementioned Family Ties bully. That I almost didn't include it because I often forget that's him as the titular headbanging guardian angel goes to show how well he reinvents himself here. He also plays what could have been a total cartoon character with a ton of complex humanity.
2. Joe in Looper - He does a great Bruce Willis, sure, but again he's hardly doing an impersonation that warrants giggles at any point. This movie should have turned him into a huge movie star, and yet his performance is actually too good to have had mainstream audiences looking at him and seeing a big screen idol of the sort we think of like, say, Bruce Willis.
3. Himself on Saturday Night Live - I'm cheating here by not going with another movie. But it is something movie related. In his first appearance on SNL in 2009, his monologue consisted of reenacting Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" number from Singin' In the Rain, and it was amazing. I'm still waiting for him to do a musical after that bit. Maybe he'll actually get to do the Guys and Dolls remake. Or perhaps he can play O'Connor in a biopic, which could be fun if we then also get to see him portray Buster Keaton. Anyway, here's the best song and dance seen on SNL in decades:
Your Picks (the top three being Brick, Looper and 50/50):
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