Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s New Skin Flick

4 minute read
Lily Rothman

Usually, Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t like to say what he thinks a movie is or isn’t about, though he’s been in plenty–Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln, Looper–that might prompt questions. This time is an exception: for his feature debut as a writer and director, he did not make a movie about pornography.

He did, however, make a movie that required him to watch a lot of it.

“It was sort of arduous,” Gordon-Levitt, 32, says of selecting adult-video clips to use in Don Jon, a satire in which he also stars, without losing its R rating. “It becomes not fun at all.”

It may not have been fun, but it was necessary. In the movie, released Sept. 27, he plays Jon, a New Jerseyan whose online porn habits derail his off-line life. This year, Sundance Film Festival was dubbed Porndance because of the prevalence of movies about the seedier side of cinema, and Don Jon made a splash with a multimillion-dollar distribution deal. Yet focusing on flesh misses the point, says the filmmaker. His goal, cloaked in sex and comedy, was to talk about how fiction seduces consumers into lusting after ideals rather than human beings. Pornography is just one culprit; the character played by Scarlett Johansson–a woman who talks like Snooki but was inspired by Brigitte Bardot in Godard’s French classic Contempt–is just as affected by sappy romances. Advertising images are indicted as well. It’s a big idea, the kind Gordon-Levitt knows viewers might ignore without all the sex and comedy.

“If I was going to make a whole movie, I wanted it to really say something,” he says. “You’re taking a person–in our culture it’s usually a woman–and reducing her to a thing, to an object for your consumption. I think plenty of mainstream media is equally guilty of that as pornography.”

Turning that dissertation-worthy notion into a rom-com was a long process. Gordon-Levitt–in person earnest and with little of gym-rat Jon’s macho bearing–saw the parallel between mass media and pornography while being drooled over in ’90s teen magazines. He put some theoretical meat on the concept by taking a Columbia University course called Feminist Texts while getting what he calls “about half a bachelor’s degree.”

His starring role in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer underlined the point. He felt that his character, hipster romantic archetype Tom, idealized Zooey Deschanel’s character to the point of objectification. Yet fans idealized Tom right back, failing to notice that Tom doesn’t bother listening to what women actually say. Gordon-Levitt started writing Don Jon in 2010 but didn’t want to make it until he could get creative control. (Fame may lead to being drooled on, but his growing celebrity brought funding without strings.)

Though it’s his first feature, the production ran smoothly, thanks in part to work he’s done outside of class. Gordon-Levitt runs a crowdsourced production company, hitRECord, which has a variety show set to premiere in January on the fledgling Pivot network.

Tony Danza, who plays Gordon-Levitt’s father in Don Jon, remembers the younger actor shadowing the director when they were in 1994’s Angels in the Outfield. “The year before he took the helm on this, he worked with Steven Spielberg and Chris Nolan,” Danza says. “If he was watching Bill Dear in Angels in the Outfield, I’m sure he was watching those guys.” As for the script, Danza says his reaction on reading it was, “Holy mackerel! I know the kid’s smart, but jeez.”

Gordon-Levitt may use his rom-com as a vehicle for deep thoughts about sex and love and how popular portrayals of them warp our expectations, but not everything is academic.

So, again, Don Jon is not about pornography. It is about romance.

“I think it’s rather idealistic,” he says. “If you’re comparing your lover to a checklist, that’s not romantic–that’s consumerism. What’s romantic is finding the nuances and the details that are unlike anybody else. That’s what the most sexy stuff comes from.”

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