The Acting In Inception: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

(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.

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26 Responses to The Acting In Inception: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

  1. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favorite contemporary actors. In my (mostly negative) review of “Inception,” I noted that he has the spindly physique of a silent film star, which served him well in “(500) Days of Summer” and I thought was only partially utilized in “Inception” during the sequence you mentioned. However, Jake (from Not Just Movies) countered in the Comments that Nolan did take advantage of Gordon-Levitt’s silent screen presence, putting him in suits that made him look taller and thinner than ever, and which gave him the appropriate sheen of a second-banana in a thriller. He makes a pretty good case.

  2. sheila says:

    Craig – Thank you so much for your perspective! I really like the idea of the silent-film-star thing he has going on – how true! That was awesomely used in (500) Days. I do think his wardrobe in Inception helped him, and his slicked-back hair – he looked completely different from the cute kind of scruffy guy you see on the red carpet, and like I mention, I like the FACT that he was cast at all. It doesn’t make sense on the face of it, and I liked seeing him outside his comfort zone a bit. I found him very convincing in the fight scenes – totally believing that he would fight to the end. Some of his dialogue was just awful, though – although that is not his fault!!

  3. sheila says:

    I did see your review, and agree with most of it. I thought the script was appallingly bad – it even embarrassed me at times, and the film pretty much left me cold (although some of the effects were really neat), but the performances were all “hot”- across the board – alive and intense – an interesting and frustrating situation, so I figured I’d just write about the performances as my “way in”.

  4. sheila says:

    My larger actor-centric point is: Good for him for taking risks. He won’t always have a slam-dunk, but it really bodes well for his career as a whole

  5. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does have that one humorous moment in Inception where he kisses Ellen Page’s Ariadne in a failed attempt at a ruse; when it fails, he turns around and says, “Yeah, it was worth a shot.” So the film, while mostly humorless, is not totally so…

    • Me says:

      I don’t think it was a failed attempt at a ruse. I think he just tried to kiss her. And it was cute.

  6. I laughed, albeit not in the manner intended, because that chaste kiss is one of the hottest moments Nolan has ever filmed.

  7. Lisa says:

    I finally watched (500) Days yesterday, and it was not as twee as I was afraid it would be. I liked it a lot.

    Also, JGL hosted SNL and did a little “make ‘em laugh”-esque dance as part of his opening monologue. He was adorable.

  8. Lisa,

    Thank you for reminding me of his SNL bit — that was terrific. Between his song and dance abilities, his silent-clown shtick, and his panache in Brick at uttering neo-Chandlerian zingers (the most complex dialogue this side of Deadwood), I’d say Gordon-Levitt truly is a throwback to an earlier time. That’s why I like him.

  9. sheila says:

    Kenji – Oh yeah, that was amusing. I had forgotten about it. As I mentioned, I think the film has a serious tone problem – too much the same, so the gradations were lost for me. But yes, that showed his humanity a bit – trying to get away with something, then a philosophical shrug when he is busted.

    He’s very talented.

  10. sheila says:

    Lisa – yeah, I had the same worries about 500 Days – but then I was reading these reviews, these great reviews, and thought – gotta go check it out. I thought it was great. I loved the split screen Reality/Expectations section at the end – My God, I have LIVED that!!!

  11. sheila says:

    Craig – I like that interpretation of what he is bringing to the table, I really do – how cool that he is finding roles that utilize that. I mean, what he was asked to do in 500 Days – with all the different film homages, and a musical number, mixed with straight dramatic scenes – I can’t imagine anyone else in that part. Kudos!

  12. sheila says:

    Kenji – Just realized I mentioned the tone problem in the Leonardo DiCaprio post, not this one.

  13. While I was familiar with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s work in “3rd Rock,” it wasn’t until I saw “Brick” that realized just how good he could be. While that movie’s dialogue gets a justifiable amount of attention, for me it was Levitt’s icy focus that caught my attention. So different from “3rd Rock,” but so effective.

    Since then I’ve been pleased to see him taking creative risks and broadening his resume with unexpected choices. I hope to be watching him for along time to come.

  14. sheila says:

    Yes, he’s got terrific range. He’s on a great character-actor path right now. I hope it continues, and I hope, too, to be watching him for years to come.

  15. Sarah says:

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance in Mysterious Skin convinced me he’s someone to watch out for, it was a brave performance in a very affecting film. Haven’t been grabbed by word of mouth or reviews of Inception, but might see it for the cast.

  16. Lisa says:

    You know, I’ve never found, um, slight (for lack of a better word) men very sexy — I tend to like them blurpy, like you — but that in that Expectations/Reality scene? Where he backs her up against the wall and kisses her? I was all, DAMN.

    I mean, physically, they’re pretty much even. Zooey might even be a little bigger* than he is, frankly, but in that moment, he is. . .a MAN. It was very hot.

  17. sheila says:

    Totally agreed.

  18. As noted in IMDb, Gordon-Levitt’s role was originally intended for James Franco. Gordon-Levitt seems to have used DiCaprio’s career template of going from television sit-com to independent films to hone his acting chops to the selectively chosen mainsteam movies.

  19. sheila says:

    Peter – yes, it’s been sort of a slow CREEP of a career, and that’s really worked for him.

  20. sheila says:

    Oh, and more to come – I’m working on Ellen Page and Tom Hardy right now. Busy day – may go up later.

  21. mitchell says:

    LOVE him..major crush. talk about brave..watch him do the Donald O’Connor number on SNL…live…running up the wall!!!! mmmmmm

  22. sheila says:

    Mitchell – for some reason, your comment was caught in Limbo, but I found it!

    Yes, he’s wonderful – really look forward to seeing what he does next. The dance number in 500 Days of Summer is, to quote you, “sheer liquid joy”.

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  24. Snuze says:

    @Sheila: Thank you for the lovely write up on JGL. I felt that he is one of the most underrated actors of his generation and it is lovely to see him show off his acting chops in a summer blockbuster movie. Otherwise, it is likely that he will be relegated to nothing but quirky roles and indie films without the acknowledgment of what a superb craftsman he truly is.

    @Craig: … the spindly physique of a silent film star … Nolan did take advantage of Gordon-Levitt’s silent screen presence, putting him in suits that made him look taller and thinner than ever, and which gave him the appropriate sheen of a second-banana in a thriller.

    I love your description here; it underscores why JGL had the impact he had on the film. As much as he was the unlikeliest action star, it is the incongruenity that made it work, IMHO. The contrast of stillness and explosive violence in combination with the cunning calculation that he brought to the role was just fabulous.

  25. sheila says:

    Snuze – Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed. I agree that he is really someone to watch. My personal taste, however, is for the indie movies. I’m not a summer blockbuster person, and can barely get up any interest at all in any of them. Give me Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind over Inception any day of the week. Hopefully, with paychecks for movies like Inception, Gordon-Levitt can keep doing indie movies. There is always a tradeoff like that, in a career. In my opinion, it is far better, in the long run, to be “underrated”. Those guys are usually the last ones standing and their body of work is way more interesting. I would hate to see him surrender to a big action blockbuster movie career (although I don’t think that’s likely) – I think something really precious would be lost then.

    But like I said, it’s really nice to see this incongruous bit of casting. A weird choice, and I look forward to seeing what else he does.