Jonah Hill is now a filmmaker. The Oscar-nominated actor (The Wolf of Wall Street) has joined the slew of on-screen talent sliding into the director’s chair, including this season’s Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born), Brady Corbett (Vox Lux) and Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade). The vile, immature antics we’ve come to expect from Hill on screen in flicks like “Superbad,” where he played an outcast teenager trying to lose his virginity or his violent-tempered cop in “21 Jump Street,” those elements are still present in this skateboarding nostalgia trip appropriately titled “Mid90’s.”
Hill doesn’t appear on screen, but it doesn’t take long to spot which character in the story Hill imagines himself to be (hint, it’s the guy with the camera). Or maybe there is a little bit of Hill in each of the teenagers. Lucky for us, this story isn’t autobiographic or about the filmmaker’s childhood. Hill grew up in a wealthy family and neighborhood having a pretty easy time breaking into the business. He made friends with Dustin Hoffman’s children who introduced the young comedian to their father, and the rest becomes history. Whether you are aware of not, Hill has earned an unsavory reputation in certain circles, most notably journalists the star doesn’t particularly approve of. I have been the unfortunate witness to one of these exchanges, and social media is filled with them.
What’s Jonah Hill’s movie about?
“Mid90’s” focuses on the era of Hill’s ascension to adulthood. Those in their 30’s now might be most interested in taking that trip back through the 90’s where everything felt like a blend of the past and the present crashing together at full speed. This story follows 11-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic), bullied at home by his older brother (Lucas Hedges), and desperately seeking a male role model with no father present and a busy mom (Katherine Waterson). With no friends or hobbies beyond video games and TV, Stevie develops an interest in skateboarding, because this is the 1990’s Los Angeles and that’s the coolest thing you can do at age 11.
Stevie trades some of his favorite video games for brother Ian’s outdated skateboard, gaining him entry into a local group of skaters. At first, he is the annoying little kid, tagging along with these teen skate punks who drink, smoke and brag about their exploits with women. It’s only after a heart-stopping fall from a rooftop and a mild concussion that the rowdy gang welcome their new little daredevil into the group. What could have been a tragic fall, ultimately becomes a pivotal moment in his young life. The 90’s era doesn’t affect the plot that much beyond the Teenage Ninja Turtle bedsheets and Super Nintendo consoles. Hill shoots the film in 16mm, full screen (4:3), another throw-back to movies during that period. “Let’s have a Blockbuster night,” mom says in once scene, harking back to America’s once favorite Friday night pastime.
Why “Mid90’s” doesn’t feel like much of an achievement.
Coming-of-age plots are the most likely start for first-time filmmakers. Both Hill and fellow comedian Burnham take this route for their directorial debut. An easy jumping off point if based on true life experiences and settings, because the filmmaker has lived much of his vision. “This has been a superb year for coming of age stories in multiple formats,” says Erik Anderson of Awards Watch. “Eighth Grade” from Bo Burnham is the best of its kind this year. Its examination of female adolescence, it’s told with such detail and empathy for Kayla, the social-media obsessed 13-year old perfectly played by Elsie Fisher.
There isn’t as much relatability in Hill’s film, which he wrote, directed and produced. He freely admits getting advice and help from some of the most famous guys in the business. Yet in the same breath, he explains how difficult the movie was to make. “I know it’s hard to make a movie period, but to be at a festival where some people are talking about how they worked 15 years just to get their budget together, fighting back against obstacles… your movie is made by A24, produced by Scott Rudin, and Trent Reznor is on your soundtrack,” film critic Kristy Puchko from Pajiba recently discussed. “I’m sure it was difficult for him, but comparably.”
Having worked with some of the filmmaking greats, Hill has access to the eyes and ears of Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf of Wallstreet”), Coen Brothers (“Hail Cesar”), Tarantino (“Django Unchained”), which most first time filmmakers would kill to get advice from. “If you think making a movie is climbing a mountain, Jonah Hill got to the top of that mountain. Now he took a helicopter to the top, but he still climbed up in the helicopter, waited there patiently until he got to the top of the mountain,” Neil Miller from Film School Rejects joked. I worried before seeing the film when it debuted at The Toronto International Film Festival that Hill’s cold personality in real life would bleed into his work here, but he manages to write a few characters that have decent depth. Of course, this is a male-dominated film where vulgarity is commerce and women just targets or jokes.
Jonah Hill’s PR problem is his personality.
During a roundtable interview on “21 Jump Street” at SXSW, I personally experienced Jonah Hill, on his rise to superstardom, embarrass a journalist. “Dude, I just answered that, I’m not repeating myself, whose next.” These types of statements from Hill are not uncommon and are rising to the surface again during his “Mid90’s” press tour. When Slate journalist Jeffery Bloomer recently spoke with Hill about the film he asked about the very sensitive and uncomfortable sex scene between the lead character and an older girl. “Were you surprised by the very strong reaction? Or was it deliberate? He asked.” “I think you’re mining for something that isn’t there,” Hill replied. The interview gets worse as Boomer goes into his next question: “The movie is blunt about a lot of things that movies like this often aren’t. The kids also have pretty direct conversations about race, and the boys talk to a homeless man in a skate park in a scene that feels important to the movie. I know this movie is very personal to your experience: Do you think kids at the time would have talked about this stuff so directly?” Hill responds, “Well, you clearly didn’t like it, my man.”
Hill also recently told the LA Times that people are mean to him for no reason. Maybe it’s the way he hurls homophobic slurs at paparazzi, he has publicly apologized twice for his insensitive and offensive language, just a guess. It was also noted a few years ago Hill stopped signing autographs for fans, instead, handing out business cards. Hill has had a number of negative journalism controversy’s in his career, the one with CNN’s Don Lemon back in 2012, being one of the most public. “Mid90’s” won’t be a blockbuster or an award contender, but Hill certainly has the tools needed to deliver films, whether earned, bought or studied. His next project should give us a real glimpse into the future of Jonah Hill, the director.