Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not the enemy. He’s a talented actor, and a charismatic star. He seems cool, and he’s made a lot of movies I like: Looper, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Lookout, Inception, Brick. If The Dark Knight Rises were being reenacted in my backyard right now, I would watch it. 500 Days of Summer isn’t for me but I get that you like it and I want you to continue to live your life, you’re doing great, I’m so proud of you. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an actor whom I want in my life as a moviegoer.
But the accents? The accents — they have to stop.
Here is an abridged list of things that Joseph Gordon-Levitt almost, but not quite, sounds like in Oliver Stone’s Snowden, out last week:
- Three kids stacked on top of each other inside of a trench coat
- The moment in a 2000s comedy when the third male lead realizes he’s been shot with a tranquilizer gun
- A prank caller whose heart just isn’t in it
- Someone Shailene Woodley would waste her early 20s on
- A short story where an old frog teaches a young frog how to build a boat, and then dies
- An outtake from a YouTube review of the iPhone voice changer app
- Edward Snowden
And it’s not just Snowden: The Walk … Don Jon … that’s now three terrible accents from Gordon-Levitt in four years. As far as why he does this — I think it’s clear: He cares. He sees an accurate accent as going that extra mile — as a means of bringing a real and maximal authenticity to his performances. If The Walk’s Philippe Petit speaks with a French accent, then Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants to speak with a French accent. If the random guy he saw at the gym once whom he based Don Jon’s Jon on speaks like a lazy and dated approximation of a Jersey Shore cast member, then Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants to speak like a lazy and dated approximation of a Jersey Shore cast member. And if Edward Snowden speaks like a bucket of marbles that smugly finishes its CIA camp standardized tests way before everyone else, then Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants to speak like a bucket of marbles that smugly finishes its CIA camp standardized tests way before everyone else. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an actor who doesn’t just want to act. He wants to embody. He wants to authenticate. He wants to inform.
And he really, really, really shouldn’t.
Snowden is essentially a horror movie about some guy who has you cornered at a party and won’t stop talking about this “amazing documentary” he just watched. And it’s not even that the documentary sounds bad. Actually, quite to the contrary: You’ve seen the documentary. It’s great! But you’re, umm, you’re kind of just here for the party.
And it could have been a pretty good party. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s accent in Snowden is bad — but it’s not so bad. It doesn’t ruin the film or anything. What ruins the film, rather, is the idea that he had to do an accent at all. Because here’s the truth: Literally no one cares what Edward Snowden sounds like. What Edward Snowden sounds like is so totally incidental to the prospective quality of an Edward Snowden movie. It doesn’t matter. In the same way it doesn’t matter that Snowden is 5-foot-11, while Gordon-Levitt is 5-foot-9; and it doesn’t matter that Snowden is 33, while Gordon-Levitt is 35 — it doesn’t matter that Gordon-Levitt and Snowden sound nothing alike.
There’s a common observation that we make about famous actors at a certain level — the Tom Hankses and the Denzel Washingtons and the Jennifer Lawrences of the world. We joke that these actors “always only play themselves.” It sounds like an insult when we say it, but of course it isn’t one. When we joke that certain movie stars “always only play themselves,” what we’re really saying is that we implore them to. We’re saying that they — their faces, their gaits, their styles, and, yes, their accents — are the reason we watch in the first place.
If we want to watch Citizenfour, well, we know where to find it. And if we want to spend two hours and 18 minutes in close quarters with a guy who’s really, really into the fact that he’s watched Citizenfour, then we probably know where to find that too. But by buying a ticket to Snowden, we’ve kind of already made the bargain that we don’t. And from this perspective, the accent isn’t just excessive. It’s inconsiderate.
Which is to say: Joseph Gordon-Levitt can finally relax. We can acknowledge that he saw a documentary, and he can acknowledge that we do not care. Congratulations and condolences to the movie star on not being a character actor. No one actually sounds like they’re the third male lead in a 2000s bro comedy who got shot with a tranquilizer gun. We really just wanted to watch a goddamn Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie. He should make more of those.