News Column

Movie profile: Joseph Gordon-Levitt keeps doing the unexpected

September 26, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 26--We know what to expect from movie stars, at least in a broad sense.

They carry traits through their films that form the basis of what makes them stars. Even a young guy like Ryan Gosling shows well-established patterns, such as his long silences, tough-guy accent and tendency to play loners.

But you don't know what's coming from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He plays dissimilar characters, hops genres and doles out his own signature mannerism -- that knowing smirk -- sparingly these days. Yet he keeps becoming a bigger star, and Gosling's primary rival for the hearts of thinking young female moviegoers.

No one could predict that the kid from "3rd Rock From the Sun" would be so heartbreaking as a teenage hustler in 2004's "Mysterious Skin." Or that the dancing romantic from 2009's "(500) Days of Summer" could be a believable killer (and younger version of Bruce Willis) in 2012's "Looper."

Or that the determined cop from the "The Dark Knight Rises" would segue so easily into muscled-up, porn-addicted New Jerseyite Jon, lead character in the comedy "Don Jon," which opens today and marks Gordon-Levitt's directing and screenwriting feature-film debut.

Jon is a bartender, fitness enthusiast and devoted clubgoer who has a way with real women but does not believe they can fulfill his needs the way the women he watches on Internet porn sites can.

Testing this theory is Jon's girlfriend, Jersey lovely Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). Jon, who rates every woman he meets on a 1-10 scale, first sees Barbara in the club and deems her an elusive "dime."

As Jon revels in having scored such a prize, Barbara nudges him to take night classes and find a career that doesn't involve nightclubs. So he can, you know, become husband material like the guys she sees in romantic comedies.

It's tempting to attribute Gordon-Levitt's versatility to those "3rd Rock" residuals giving him freedom to try different genres. But given his devotion to his artistically collaborative website hitRECord.com, it seems more likely he's just a creatively adventurous spirit. In January, "hitRECord" will become a television variety show, hosted by Gordon-Levitt, on the new cable channel Pivot.

We caught up with Gordon-Levitt by phone during his recent publicity stop in San Francisco for "Don Jon."

What inspired you to write this script?

I have worked as an actor ever since I was a little kid, so I have always paid quite a bit of attention to the way media affects how we see the world. And how we treat each other, etc. I find that oftentimes -- especially when it comes to love and sex and relationships -- we develop certain unrealistic expectations from the movies and TV shows we watch, or the pop songs we (listen to), or even pornography.

When you think of guys addicted to Internet porn, you don't think of them getting many dates in real life. But Jon does. Why write him that way?

Because the crux of the story is how this guy sort of treats people more like things than like people. And how everything in his life is a one-way street, whether it's his love life, or his family life, the way he is with his friends ... even the way he is with his own body. Everything is an object on the shelf.

I thought that bringing media into that was a really great visual symbol for it, and kind of a way to bring a sense of humor to this film. The idea of the guy you are talking about, who watches pornography because he is lonely, that didn't really get to what I am talking about. But if he were a ladies' man, that would really bring up this theme of how people treat each other like things.

Isn't Barbara's idea of what Jon should be also an artificial construct, sort of like Jon's ideas about porn?

That's exactly it. The reason I wanted to have pornography in the movie was to put it on the same playing field as the rest of our media. A lot of people say, 'Oh, there is so much more pornography than there has ever been.' I actually would encourage people to take a closer look at the mainstream media. ... Commercials on the Super Bowl that are approved by the FCC for general viewing audiences are just as sexist as a pornography clip. They have the same message. They take a person, and usually it is a woman, but it is done with men and women, and reduce her to a thing. And use that thing to sell their product, whatever it is. A car or a hamburger, or whatever it is.

Jon has a big character arc, but at the film's start, he's probably the least-sympathetic character you ever have played.

I like movies where characters grow. The character in "Looper" is a professional murderer, but by the end, he attains some redemption. The classic Don Juan character appears in tragic stories where his shortcomings and his selfish deeds end up destroying him. I like to think of myself as more of an optimist. I like to think that people can change. And so I wanted to write a character that yes, at the beginning he is a very selfish guy ... but by the end, he has grown up a bit.

"Don Jon" carries a very consistent comedic tone for a film by a first-time feature director. Did your time on a sitcom help you develop a rhythm?

Absolutely. I think I learned a lot about comedy, and what it takes to make a room full of people laugh, on "3rd Rock From the Sun." I mean, John Lithgow and Jane Curtin and Kristen Johnston and French (Stewart) and Wayne (Knight) were such skilled actors, mostly from the theater. Theater is, I think, where you really get a sense of that comic timing, and what it means to have an audience (laughing), and I absolutely learned a ton from that.

Of course the tone in "Don Jon" is not the same as a sitcom; it is a movie, and we are really taking advantage of the cinematic form and playing with the camera and playing with the music and the editing and doing things you can't do on sitcoms or in the theater.

Did you take any cues from "Jersey Shore" or "Saturday Night Fever" in creating the character of Don Jon?

Yeah, I think "Saturday Night Fever" is a great movie. That, and "Rocky" and "Mean Streets." I had never seen "Jersey Shore" when I wrote (the screenplay). People have brought it up to me enough by now that I did watch one episode, which was enough for me.

I don't think this movie really has much in common with that. This is about a really normal guy. That show is about some kids in a mansion.

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