Born and raised in New York City, Jonathan Levine is an American director, writer and producer whose body of work demonstrates his ability to be versatile across genres, although for now it appears he has developed a niche for comedy.
Levine’s debut feature length film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, followed the antics of a group of popular high school teens that invite Mandy Lane (Amber Heard), an innocent ingénue, to a weekend party at a secluded ranch. One by one, the number of partiers begin to drop mysteriously. Reviews of the film were polarizing and although it premiered at film festivals through 2006/2007, it was unreleased in the US for over seven years due to complications with its distributor, which went bankrupt after purchasing the film from The Weinstein Company. The only things of note of Mandy Lane are it was yet another example of a “young director doing an early horror film” box being checked and that it starred Johnny Depp’s ex-wife.
Thankfully, his sophomore film The Wackness (2008) was a much better effort. It got immediate notice right out of the gate as one of the most talked about films at Sundance that year and what truly allowed him to level up. Starring Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Schindler’s List) Famke Janssen (X-Men), and Olivia Thirlby (Juno, Dredd), the film is set in the summer of 1994 and focuses on the unorthodox relationship between lonely teen marijuana dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) and his psychotherapist as they both face changes in their lives.
Three years later Levine held hostage the hearts and eye ducts of simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking cancer-comedy 50/50 (2011), starring Seth Rogan (Knocked Up, Neighbors) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer, Looper), about a twenty-seven year old man (Gordon-Levitt) who is diagnosed with cancer and his struggle to beat the disease, despite his 50/50 chance of survival. Levine unflinchingly captures the humor and trials of cancer diagnosis and treatment; the screenplay was loosely based on the experiences of Seth Rogan’s friend, screenwriter Will Reiser.
Levine’s following feature was Warm Bodies (2013), “a zombie romance” starring Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man, X-Men: First Class) and Teresa Palmer (Lights Out, Hacksaw Ridge) as a respective zombie and zombie apocalypse survivor who fall in love. I would bet dollars to donuts it was green-lit solely due to the explosive (pun intended) success of AMC’s The Walking Dead. It is a delightful black comedy/romance that could warm the deadest, most cynical of hearts, yet isn’t a rehash of the typical zombie tropes.
Levine put on his producer hat for the short-lived USA Network television series Rush (2014), starring Tom Ellis (Miranda, Lucifer) as a hard-partying LA doctor-for-hire for the wealthy whose conscience and an old flame begin to stir up his life. The series had middling reviews and only lasted one season before being cancelled.
With The Night Before (2015), a w-ho-ho-ho-ley unorthodox Christmas Eve adventure, Levine reunited with Seth Rogan and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, while Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Lizzy Caplan (Mean Girls, Masters of Sex) and Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street, Rough Night) joined in on the naughty holiday fun. Once again Levine balances the comic and the tragic (albeit more unevenly this time around) in capturing the antics of a trio of men (Rogan, Gordon-Levitt and Mackie) celebrating one last hurrah for the tradition of Christmas Eve debauchery created out of tragedy. I predict this bro-y, yet not obnoxiously douchey film, will become a classic for the Millennial druggie set.
Once again he followed his comedy nose to produce Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016). The film was based on the true story of brothers Mike and Dave Stangle (played by Adam Devine and Zac Efron) who became Internet sensations when their Craigslist ad for suitable wedding dates went viral. In the film, the fictional Stangle brothers meet their match when two con women (Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick) finangle their way into being the brothers’ dates, and of course all chaos breaks loose at their sister’s Hawaii wedding. The Stangle viral sensation was past its sell date by the time it was released, but it was refreshing to see the female protagonists allowed to be equally as idiotic and badly behaved as the guys, all the while running circles around them. I was also in awe over the sheer dedication to which Efron is reinventing himself as the “dumb douche;” he knows there’s a niche and he is milking it for all its worth. Plus, a million brownie points for casting Canada’s former YTV In the Zone co-host Sugar Lyn Beard as the brothers’ wedding-stressed sister Jeanie.
Not going to lie — the trailers for Snatched, a mother-daughter South American vacation gone horribly wrong starring Goldie Hawn (Private Benjamin, Overboard) and Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), have been rough. In spite of whatever reception Snatched will have, at the very least it solidifies Levine as a director who can draw top-notch comedic performances from actors. Not that he needs to do much coaxing with Snatched’s powerhouse protagonists; Goldie Hawn is a NATIONAL TREASURE and Amy Schumer, while currently overexposed, is a genuine comedic star who can roll with most material that is thrown at her. Hawn and Schumer’s chemistry as mother and daughter is 110% believable and in spite of my sixth sense telling me it could be 2017’s Hot Pursuit, there are worse things to watch in theatres than watching two proven comedic actresses bounce off of one another.
Levine’s future projects include Flarsky, starring Charlize Theron and reuniting once again with Seth Rogan, about a political journalist who tries to hook up with his old babysitter, who now holds a high-up government position, and Brooklyn Castle, a feature adaptation of the 2012 documentary of the same name about a junior high class from New York City competing in a chess tournament.
My two-cents is if Levine is going to go all in on comedy as his calling card, he needs to work with better scripts or have editors/script doctors go over his screenplays. He has a knack for crafting very funny jokes and gags and working with comedic actors, and his films haves interesting premises. However, the jokes/gags/bits tend to feel as though they are “funny for the sake of funny” rather than helping to move the narrative forward, and sometimes run a touch too long. Maybe it would help if he took a step back from comedy to gain some comedy perspective? Brooklyn Castle could be the perfect to clear his head.