I’ve been told that guys don’t seem to appreciate being called “adorable” by girls. They consider it a back-handed compliment and seriously, how insecure can you be? Okay, I understand that most guys want to us to think that they’re dangerous and I’ll admit right now that all that stuff you’ve heard about girls liking bad boys — well, it’s true. But adorable is no longer just a back-handed compliment. Why? Because Joseph Gordon-Levitt has made adorable sexy.
I first really noticed Joseph Gordon-Levitt when I saw him as the lead in 2007’s overlooked crime thriller The Lookout but he truly won my heart when I first saw him dancing to You Make My Dreams in (500) Days of Summer. And then came Inception. Some people will tell you that film was about Leonardo DiCaprio entering other people’s dreams to find himself. Nope, sorry, not true. As far as I’m concerned, Inception was a movie about Joseph Gordon-Levitt getting all dressed up and floating through the halls of that dream hotel and beating up every single person who tried to get in his way. What did all three of these roles have in common? Nothing except for the utterly adorable hotness of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
It was this adorable hotness that led me to see Gordon-Levitt’s latest film, Hesher. Despite the fact that the film is massively (perhaps fatally) flawed, this is also the film that proves that, as an actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt can be something more than just an adorable fantasy boyfriend.
Directed by Spencer Sussman and co-written by Animal Kingdom director David Michod, Hesher opens with 12 year-old T.J. (Devin Brochu) struggling to come to terms with the tragic death of his mother and his family’s subsequent collapse. T.J. and his father (a bear-like Rainn Wilson) have moved in with their grandmother (a perfectly poignant performance from Piper Laurie) who is showing the beginning signs of senility. T.J. spends his days obsessing on the remains of the family car (which was totaled in the accident that killed his mother), trying to avoid local bullies, and dealing with a hopeless crush that he’s developed on a cashier (Natalie Portman) at the local grocery store.
When T.J. first meets Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Hesher is squatting in an abandoned construction site. T.J. accidentally leads a security guard to Hesher’s temporary home. Hesher responds by lighting a molotov cocktail and blowing the place up while T.J. runs away. Suddenly, T.J. starts to see Hesher wandering around the hallways of his school. Walking home from school, T.J. sees Hesher following behind him in what can only be described as a “rape van.” And then, just as suddenly, Hesher has moved in to T.J.;s house and made himself into a part of the family. Hesher quickly becomes a mentor of sorts to T.J. though his lessons primarily consist of doing things like blowing up a bully’s car and then running off, leaving T.J. to deal with the consequences.
Hesher is hardly a role that you’d expect to find Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing. With long, unwashed hair and an extended middle finger tattooed across his back, Hesher isn’t so much an outsider as he’s just a sociopath, the type of guy who you try not to make eye contact out of fear that he’ll respond by shooting you first. How scary a guy is Hesher? He’s so scary that just saying his name causes the film’s soundtrack to explode with a burst of heavy metal. That’s how scary he is. The Joseph Gordon-Levitt that we all know and love (or at least the one that I know and love) is pretty much impossible to find and yet, Gordon-Levitt still gives a great performance here. Without ignoring any of Hesher’s rough edges or trying to reveal any sort of inner decency, both the film and Gordon-Levitt make Hesher into a frustratingly attractive character. This is probably the best performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s career so far.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t really live up to Gordon-Levitt’s performance. It starts out well and, for quite some time, we’re encouraged to believe that Hesher might just be a product of T.J.’s imagination, a projection of his own anger and depression. That’s an interesting idea and would have made for a far more effective film. Unfortunately, Hesher then suddenly moves in wit T.J. and suddenly, he’s interacting with Wilson and befriending Piper Laurie and, worst of all, he starts to reveal a little bit about his past. In other words, he goes from being a symbol of unrestrained ID to just being another white trash rapist. Once the film makes it clear that Hesher is an actual character then suddenly, you realize that the filmmakers haven’t given you any credible reason why both Wilson and Laurie (not to mention the cops who start to regularly drop by the house as Hesher blows stuff up around the neighborhood) would so easily accept the idea of living with him. Finally, the movie concludes with a sequence at a funeral that just feels so simultaneously wrong, heavy-handed, and maudlin that, at first, I was convinced that it had to be some sort of satirical comment on the clichéd nature of the scene. But no, the rest of the film makes clear that we’re supposed to take this sequence seriously. It’s such a wrong-headed move that it cheapens everything that came before it. The movie ends with a lot of loud music and the credits are decorated with obscene graffiti but it doesn’t make any difference. The film has already revealed that, at heart, it’s hardly rebellious enough to be worthy of a character like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Hesher.
In the end, Hesher fails as a movie but its partially redeemed for revealing that there’s more to Joseph Gordon-Levitt than just adorable cuteness.