Written, directed, and starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Mr. Corman is the latest Apple TV+ original. Levitt plays Josh Corman, an artist at heart who has fallen into teaching fifth grade at a San Fernando Valley public school. He was once a successful musician with an exciting career ahead of him, but now he is anxious and lonely, teaching kids who seem to know far more about the world than him.
He lives with his high school buddy Victor (Arturo Castro) after his fiancé Megan (Juno Temple) moved out. Victor, we learn, has a daughter he doesn’t see enough, and Megan is on the brink of a successful solo career.
This dramedy mixes genres for a very surreal end result. Josh is rich with good intentions, yet always manages to always say the wrong thing at the wrong time. He yearns to be a grown up, yet can’t hang up his teenage aspirations. He wants to do more with his life, yet finds himself weighed down by teenage loans. Whether he’s cleaning up his ex-fiancés mother’s vomit or trying to tell a small child that God isn’t real, Josh somehow manages to get it wrong and upset his loved ones.
Mr. Corman starts off as a rather cliché teacher having a meltdown over where his life has ended up narrative. It soon twists into an experimental show with full musical numbers, parallel universes, animated sequences and a whole episode dedicated to a previously little seen side character (with his own opening credits). The show sometimes struggles to weave all these surreal ideas together, often feeling disorientated, but it’s never a boring watch. The 20-to-30-minute episodes sometimes feel disjointed, like an anthology series with recurring characters.
The area Mr. Corman excels in is how it portrays anxiety and mental illness. A claustrophobic soundtrack with spontaneous chimes and gongs, it encapsulates the jittery palpitations of going through day-to-day life with anxiety. The musical numbers, the apocalyptic imagery and the heavy-handed score are all perfect representations of what it feels like to deal with mental illness. When the show drifts away from Josh’s sadness and anxiety, the narrative struggles. Sometimes, the analogies work, sometimes they are too cryptical, but the boldness should be admired. This could have easily turned into another TV dramedy about a man of a certain age realising that they are going to end up sad and alone, regretful of all the opportunities he missed.
Joseph Gordon Levitt has been a much-missed leading man (his last leading turn was in 2016’s Snowden, although he has had supporting roles in The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Project Power). His expressive eyes and understated performance come from a real place, even when dancing through the sky and singing quirky little songs with Debra Winger (who plays his mother). His supporting cast, including Jamie Chung, Logic and Shannon Woodward, are all charming and entirely game for whatever weird scenario the show puts them though.
Levitt’s quick-paced dialogue with Winger especially stands out. The authentic mother/son dynamic where she scolds him, and he blames her for every mistake in his life is smartly written and feels like the most realistic. Juno Temple lights up the screen as Megan, a wild child who had yet to give up on her musical dreams. She’s Josh’s what if, a depiction of what his life could be like if he hadn’t given up on art.
Mr. Corman is incredibly sad, often feeling light on the comedy end of its dramedy label. The episode where Victor looks after his teenage daughter, who spends the whole day being rude and unappreciative of how much he does for her, is heartbreaking. The episode where Josh thinks he is having a heart attack, his anxiety so bad, and calls every medical will resonate with anyone who suffers with their mental health.
But there is some comedy, although it’s cemented in the moments where it’s so weird and uncomfortable you have to laugh. Mr. Corman manages to find humour in funerals, break-ups and children’s birthday parties.
Mr. Corman is a smartly experimental dramedy about the absurdity of life. It’s playful and sad, perfectly understanding the nuances of mental health. While the surreal mix of genres and analogies for anxiety doesn’t always land, Joseph Gordon Levitt should be applauded for trying to break TV boundaries and create a new narrative around mental health.
Mr. Corman is available to stream exclusively on Apple TV+ from August 6th
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy