In Mr. Corman, the title character, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has given up his dream of becoming a musician and settles for being a fifth-grade teacher. But throughout the show, Corman starts to revisit his dream, getting out his old instruments and gear as he begins to record…something. As the show progresses, we see Corman as he records the way a chain falls, a small melody made on a recorder, a segment of a Winston Churchill speech. Granted, Mr. Corman treats it like some sort of masterpiece that the show has been building to, but really, this assemblage of random concepts combines to make little more than exhausting chaos.
The same is true of Mr. Corman, which is also created, executive produced, and largely written and directed by Gordon-Levitt, about a thirty-something having a crisis about where he’s ended up and where he originally saw his life going. Mr. Corman hits on ideas of whether or not success comes down to blind luck, or if it’s okay to complain about your situation when your situation is still better than most — ideas that could’ve been intriguing to follow if done well. But Mr. Corman does this by centering the series about one of the most genuinely unlikeable, whiny, and infuriating characters in modern television, while also struggling to say anything original about its themes.
Corman’s life is little more than complaining about the situation he’s in, or finding the negative in any given situation. A year ago, he and his musical partner and long-time girlfriend broke up, and it seems as though he’s been wallowing ever since. He continuously wonders what could’ve been had his dreams come true, all while generally being a jerk to anyone who comes in contact with him, all while the specter of his absent father looms over him. Corman’s mother, played by Debra Winger, tells him that “you don’t do well when other people are happy,” but even when Corman gets what he wants, he can’t be content.
The pilot episode, “Good Luck,” presents a disappointed Corman desperate to not spend another Friday night inside, playing video games with his roommate Victor (Arturo Castro). Corman wants to go live life, but when presented with the idea of going to a bar to meet someone, he complains that there won’t be anyone there who interests him. When he finally does go out when he’s invited to a bar by an old acquaintance Dax (Logic), he immediately shows his annoyance at his current situation. Even when he goes home with a nice girl who can somehow stand his bullshit, we can see as he nitpicks her every little choice. There simply is no winning with Corman, and there’s no real humor or drama to be found within his wishy-washy nature.
When unprovoked, Corman has no problem going on and on about his problems, yet when someone asks him how he’s doing, he’s cagey, saying his situation is better than how most people have it. When people are honest with Corman about his selfish and self-centered attitude, he retaliates with anger or by drowning them out. The show’s second episode, “Don’t Panic,” tries to explain that Corman is the way he is because he has undiagnosed anxiety, but that doesn’t work as a catch-all to how terrible we’ve seen Corman can be in just two episodes. Maybe Corman is the way he is because he simply is just an asshole, and maybe the reason he didn’t succeed as a musician is that he didn’t try hard enough or wasn’t talented enough. But Mr. Corman isn’t interested in having these discussions, nor does the show seem to think that anyone is close to as interesting as Corman.
Particularly in the episodes directed by Gordon-Levitt, there is a forced attempt at adding whimsy that’s more obnoxious than charming. Corman and his mother become partners in a fantasy musical number that feels reminiscent of (500 Days of Summer), while he and his friends get in a very Scott Pilgrim vs. the World-inspired fight after a Halloween party. The show occasionally makes the world have an exaggerated style that looks like it was cut out of a magazine, with giant butterflies in gardens, or nine-foot-tall guitars taking up space in a bedroom. This is all likely due to the show being largely filmed during the pandemic, but it’s an off-putting and awkward look that tries to inject some magic into this dreary and irritating story. With every one of these choices that try to add an impressionistic take on this show, it just seems like Gordon-Levitt cribbing from filmmakers like Michel Gondry or Edgar Wright that he’s clearly trying to evoke. All these fantastical elements only serve to show just how empty and devoid of its own identity Mr. Corman truly is.
In Mr. Corman’s most baffling and stylistically annoying episode, the series shows the different ways Corman’s life could’ve gone. A few of these threads make sense as extensions of the character that we’ve come to know, asking what would Corman be like if his band had taken off, or what would it be like if Corman died. But by and large, these different extensions of his possible life don’t have any basis in what the show has given us to this point. Corman could’ve been a child kidnapper, or he could’ve been a homosexual in Russia — at a club with a giant Vladimir Putin looming over it, no less. These ideas that splinter too far away from the character mean nothing and like too much of this show, seem like Gordon-Levitt trying an idea out which makes no sense in the scheme of his story.
However, Mr. Corman does improve when the show gravitates away from Gordon-Levitt’s Corman and focuses on the people in his orbit. The show’s fourth episode, “Mr. Morales,” focuses on the day-to-day life of Corman’s roommate, which is far more compelling than anything Corman offers. But even with this episode, Gordon-Levitt pops in unnecessarily, which only reminds the viewer how much better Mr. Morales would’ve been as a show. Later episodes also place Corman alongside characters who are integral to the man he has become and are far more interesting than he is, and while these episodes are stronger since they give a better look at Corman’s past, they also seem like late-in-the-game ways to make this frustrating lead more sympathetic, which is too little, too late.
Each episode of Mr. Corman finds a new way to exasperate the viewer, whether through some new way Corman can piss off the audience, or with a late “twist” of sorts that attempts to make the series modern and prescient. Like Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon, Mr. Corman feels like Gordon-Levitt is taking on too much, leaving many aspects of the series full of cliches or just bad choices.
Gordon-Levitt is clearly trying to make a statement about anxiety and the expectations that are put on people in the 30s, and while his heart seems to be in the right place, he does this through a tiring bore of a lead whose white privilege, unrelenting misery, and inability to alter his defeatist attitude makes it unlikely for viewers to make it through the first episode, and really, they won’t be missing anything. In the very first episode, Corman says “most people don’t have anything interesting to say,” and yet the show seems completely oblivious to the fact that Mr. Corman also has nothing worthwhile to give its audience.
Mr. Corman premieres August 6 on Apple TV+, with new episodes airing on Fridays.
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