Do people still buzz about things, or is that a term from the 90s that’s just serving to show my age? You know, bees buzz, and if you get a bunch of people talking about something they start to sound like bees, so something that gets people talking has buzz? Anyway, someone who deserves a heck of a lot more buzz than he’s getting at this point in his career is Jonathan Levine. He’s the sort of filmmaker who’s done nothing but good work so far, who seems to improve as a filmmaker with every movie he makes, but who still hasn’t managed to get to that next level where cinephiles all know his name and you can sell a project just by saying that he made it.
Given his track record to this point, that seems more like a failure of the people who have been marketing his movies than a failure of his work, because his stuff is not only really good, it’s all had a certain element of mainstream appeal. You’d think that if more people saw his films, or at least were better made aware that the same guy has done all of his stuff, then his name would become a commodity pretty quickly.
Levine’s first feature as a director, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, was something of a teenage slasher film, which tends to be a genre that’s fairly profitable. More than that though, it was a movie that kept everything people like about slasher films intact, but that still added its own clever twist to the story so that it could stand out a bit and help push the genre into the future. Plus, it just looked a lot better than most slasher movies, and it had better acting. This is the sort of film that should have made Levine’s career right out of the gate, but instead it debuted to acclaim at places like TIFF and SXSW in 2006, and then sat on the shelf in the US until it was finally, unceremoniously put out in October of last year. Not exactly a success story.
The second feature Levine directed was the first that he also wrote, and a step-up in quality and personality came along with that. The Wackness was one of a whole crop of youth-oriented indie films that were getting releases around the same time—things like (500) Days of Summer or Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist that were either music-oriented or that contained a certain hipster aesthetic. This was a bit of a double-edged sword, because, on the one hand, it was being released into a market that was clearly showing some demand for what it had to offer, but, on the other hand, that market might have been a little overcrowded, which caused it to blend into the crowd. What people who skipped The Wackness never learned is that it’s an oddly personal and affecting story that not only featured great performances from its stars Josh Peck and Ben Kingsley, but that also had a pretty dynamite 90s hip-hop soundtrack. More people should go back and visit or re-visit it.
The third film in Levine’s filmography, 50/50, was probably his best shot at breaking into the mainstream. It starred a just-on-the-verge-of-blowing-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt and included featured roles for people like Seth Rogen, who was probably the biggest comedy star on the planet at the time, and Anna Kendrick, who had previously earned a ton of acclaim for her work in Up in the Air. Plus, it came from a Will Reiser-penned script that was personal, hilarious, and tremendously dramatically affecting. Perhaps a little too affecting though, because while pretty much everyone who saw 50/50 liked it, anecdotal evidence has taught me that its cancer-centered storyline scared a lot of people off from the idea of ever even giving it a chance.
Warm Bodies was Levine’s fourth film, and it seemed like it was going to be the one that finally broke his streak of good projects. Not only did this zombie love story look like it was going to be a stupid cash grab that was trying to profit off of the zombie-craze that was going on at the time, but it was also a movie that was given an early-February release, which is generally a sign that a project is crappy and the studio who funded it is looking to dump it as quietly as possible. Despite what you might have thought about it before seeing it though, Warm Bodies ended up being one of the better romances of last year, one of the better comedies of last year, and even a pretty effective zombie movie, to boot. If it had gotten pushed back to a release in—let’s say—October, when people are more open to seeing zombie projects and pundits are less likely to forget you when they make their year-end lists, maybe it could have been a movie that got a little bit more love. It certainly deserved it.
All is not lost when it comes to the hopes that Levine might eventually make a movie that puts him on the tips of people’s tongues when they talk about their favorite directors though, because THR has word that the man’s fifth feature has been announced, and it sounds on paper like it has more potential mainstream appeal than anything else he’s done to this point. According to their report, Levine has been hired to make a still-untitled Christmas comedy that will be about three friends who meet up in New York City to continue their annual tradition of going out on Christmas Eve. While one of these roles has yet to be cast, it’s said that two of them are going to be filled by Levine’s 50/50 stars, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen.
People love Christmas movies, which also tend to be the sorts of things that get re-watched year after year, and people love movies about friends getting together and partying, because those sorts of stories speak to what’s truly important in life—booze—so it would seem like this one will immediately show up on a lot of movie radars once it starts being advertised. Especially seeing as Gordon-Levitt is a bigger star now than he was when 50/50 came out, and Rogen seems to have gotten over that period where people were feeling a little burnt out by him being put in every comedy.
Of course, all of Levine’s movies have been good to this point, and all of them seem to have been successes on varying levels, so I’m not trying to say that his is a career that’s reaching some kind of make-or-break moment where he’s desperately in need of a huge hit or anything. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if a guy who keeps making good movie after good movie got a little bit more recognition for his skill? It’s true that the movie business is an actor-driven industry, and it’s probably always going to be that way, but a director shouldn’t have to make Jaws or Pulp Fiction for the public to know their name. It’s about time we as movie geeks got a little bit more vocal about our love for Jonathan Levine. We should have at least gotten him up to matching the hipster status of a Nicolas Winding Refn by now, shouldn’t we have?