(500) Days of Summer was one of my favorite films last year, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt was one of the reasons why. I wasn’t a 3rd Rock From the Sun fan, so I had no preconceived notions of him going in, and I fell in love with his performance. At one specific point in the film, he became a leading man in my eyes. I remember it exactly. His character, Tom, and Summer (played by Zoe Deschanel) have met up for a drink and a drunk douchebag comes over and starts hitting on Summer, right in front of Tom. It is a classic moment of contemptuous male rivalry, where the drunk guy doesn’t even consider Tom a likely boyfriend, certainly not a rival, and he moves in drunkenly and confidently. The guy was a cocky bully in high school and has just continued on that same path. Summer handles him coolly, but Tom is enraged, and the moment ends with Tom punching the guy out. Scrawny Tom. Summer is infuriated and they have an argument back at her apartment. She tells him he had no right to make such a scene, she was perfectly capable of handling that drunk guy, and Tom has finally had it with her refusal to accept him as her boyfriend. She remains cool and calm, and he explodes, “We are a COUPLE.” and it was the way he said that line, his anger mixed with desperation, and also the love he has for her, that hopeless kind of unrequited love he has – the first time this character has ever been in love – that catapulted him into Leading Man Status for me. He is not an obvious Leading Man, men who look like him never are, and I loved the counterintuitive casting choice, it worked so well. He’s got it in him, he really has.
In Inception, he plays Arthur, the no-nonsense all-business partner of DiCaprio’s Cobb, a smileless humorless guy who tries to keep their particular project on track, even when it seems apparent that Cobb might be going off the rails. He has a fight scene in zero gravity conditions which is a lot of fun to watch, the characters using the walls and ceilings as propulsion towards one another, and, similar to (500) Days of Summer, it was nice to see Nolan think a little bit outside the box here, in terms of casting (which was true across the board, it’s a really eclectic bunch). Gordon-Levitt was not an obvious choice for Summer and he is not an obvious choice here either. I did miss his humor (I missed everyone’s humor, it’s a totally humorless film), but he plays his serious role with a relish, and is on totally equal footing with the giant movie star he plays opposite of in most scenes. More obvious casting would be to put him in a more submissive part, the nervous-nellie of the group, the brain behind the brawn required. But no, here he plays the brawn. I wasn’t totally convinced, he seemed a bit not at home in his own skin (especially in the early scenes where he has some truly abysmal lines of exposition, one in the helicopter is particularly awful, although he does his best), but I enjoyed watching the attempt. He must have had a blast, playing physical action scenes, in zero gravity, punching and rolling around in mid-air, not to mention roping up all of his floating sleeping friends and towing them down weightlessly to the elevator. I enjoyed the fact of his casting, seeing it as a healthy and welcome change from the Usual Suspects. More of that, please.