Joseph Gordon-Levitt

“Don Jon” is a surprisingly frank directorial debut for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who wrote, directed, and stars in the sex comedy, released this weekend. Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a “Jersey Shore”-esque meathead with a penchant for porn, despite the revolving door of women in his life. That all changes when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a romantic comedy junkie with equally warped perceptions of love and romance, a topic that Gordon-Levitt tackles with sharp insight and wit. 

The Daily Texan participated in a roundtable interview with Gordon-Levitt during this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival.

The Daily Texan: How long has this idea to write and direct your own movie been on your mind?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I’ve worked with a ton of directors. I always loved being on sets, I loved watching movies as well as making them. When you’re an actor, there are certain parts of the process that you have nothing to do with, like where the camera goes or how it’s cut or music. So I was always really interested in being a part of that.

I think a real turning point though, was for my 21st birthday. I bought myself my first copy of Final Cut Pro, which is a video-editing software, and I started teaching myself how to edit. I loved it. I loved it so much I dropped out of college. I’d stay up all night making little videos, pointing the camera at myself, pointing it at a computer, cutting it into little short videos. It’s so much fun to me, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Ever since then especially I’ve been pretty intent on one day making a movie.

DT: And where did the idea for the film come from?

JGL: It started with me wanting to tell a story about what is always getting in the way of love, which is how we objectify each other and media contributes to that. So I thought of a story about a guy who watches too much pornography and a girl who watches too many Hollywood movies would be a really funny way at getting at those questions.

I was thinking about the guy. Who is he, and why is watching too much pornography? If he’s just watching it because he can’t find a partner, that wouldn’t really get at the theme. But if he was a ladies’ man, if he were getting with all kinds of girls all the time, but still had this habit, this always going back to the one-way perfect objectification of pornography, that would really bring it out. I thought, “who’s the classic ladies’ man?” and that’s when I thought of the literary character of Don Juan.

Then I was thinking, “How would I play Don Juan, what would be a contemporary Don Juan? What if I made it funny? And what’s that version of Don Juan?” My first thought was machismo, east coast guy with a gym body and shiny hair. It made me laugh instantly and that was it. I loved the idea.

DT: How challenging was it to write your character as likeable?

JGL: That was always a fine line I wanted to walk. My favorite protagonists are the ones aren’t just your perfect hero, who have their flaws. You like them, they’re rooting for them, but they do some shit that’s just … Why are you doing that, dude? But that’s how people are! There isn’t a human being in the world that’s perfect all the time, just like there’s not a human being in the world that’s evil all the time. Everyone’s a mixture of both, and so to me, those are the most interesting characters.

DT: I’d like to talk about Brie Larson’s character. She’s totally absorbed in technology, and she ends up being the wisest character in the movie, despite doing almost nothing the whole time. Do you think her isolation from her family is why she’s so wise?

JGL: I thought of it the other way around. Because she’s sort of over her family, I see her as someone who’s sort of grown up a bit. She’s a few steps ahead of Jon. By the end of the movie, Jon has started to break out of his shell and engage with things and try to actually talk to his parents. His parents are close-minded people, and Monica, [Larson’s] character, has already come to that conclusion. By the time our story starts, she’s like, “These people don’t listen anyway, so why should I speak?” In that final scene, for those who’ve seen it, when she finally speaks, it’s because she sees that her brother is sort of saying something, and so she engages.

Just because she doesn’t have many lines doesn’t mean she’s doing nothing, and that’s kind of one of my favorite things about that performance. Oftentimes, my favorite moments of any given performance are those moments where the actor isn’t speaking. Yeah, she gave us a really nuanced and funny and genuine performance, saying very very very little in the movie. It’s a testament to her skills. The size of your part isn’t a linear scale with the number of your lines, and she really proved that.

DT: I love the moment where you and [Johansson’s] character discuss how she doesn’t want you cleaning your own house. I want to know about the genesis of that moment because most people would say that’s a good thing.

JGL: That’s what the movie is about, is these expectations and molds that we’re pressured into filling about what a man is supposed to be and what a woman is supposed to be. Both Jon and Barbara are trapped in these molds, and she doesn’t like the fact that he’s a man and he’s not supposed to be doing housework. It’s a ridiculous notion, but that’s the old-fashioned way of thinking, and Barbara clearly feels that way.

It’s a scene that we wrote late, while we were in the middle of production. I did it because [Johansson’s] performance was so charming, I wanted to make sure that the audience wasn’t rooting for that relationship and understood how problematic the Barbara Sugarman character is. It’s an idea that [Johansson] and I came up with together, and I wrote a version of it. We sat down and rehearsed it, and rewrote it together. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo | Daily Texan Staff

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s movie-directing debut, “Don Jon,” has the baby-faced heartthrob cast as an Italian guy from New Jersey with a severe sex addiction. Though a surprising choice of material for a first feature, “Don Jon” is a hilarious movie about relationships. It just happens to feature a hot-head pornography addict as its title character. 

Jon (Gordon-Levitt), known as Don Jon to his friends, confesses at the beginning of the film that a normal week for him includes copious amounts of sex and masturbation. Unlike Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” another movie about sex addiction, “Don Jon” doesn’t allow the emotional isolation of addiction to get in the way of the comedy. It also avoids falling into cruder forms of humor often associated with porn.

Jon prides himself on his simple tastes and his highly structured life. He works out and cleans his apartment daily, goes to church with his family on Sunday, hangs out with the guys and romances the ladies on the weekend and, most importantly, masturbates to porn four to 10 times per day. Jon’s explanation of why he prefers porn to regular sex is one of the best scenes in the movie because Gordon-Levitt delivers it in such a serious and deluded way that it is both funny and heart-wrenching at the same time.

The main action of the movie follows Jon’s romance with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), an Italian-accented bombshell who immediately upsets Jon’s structured life — she’s not a fan of the porn habit. Barbara consumes Hollywood romantic comedies with the same engagement with which Jon consumes his porn. The two characters look to a fictionalized picture of romance and sex to fill an emotional void. Jon and Barbara are superficial, a characteristic most apparent during a huge argument about cleaning supplies.

The cast holds some welcome surprises. Julianne Moore appears halfway through the movie as a fellow student in Jon’s night class who introduces him to some harsh realities about his favorite past time. “Short-Term 12’s” Brie Larson also has a small role as Jon’s sister who communicates mostly through sarcastic eye-rolls. But the standout performance comes from Levitt himself. He does not play Jon as anything more than a horny meathead, but his commitment to the part — right down to the sleeked back, buzzed-on-the-sides haircut — brings the movie together through sheer presence. 

Actors-turned directors usually stick to familiar territory when making their first efforts behind the cameras. Clint Eastwood began his directing career with westerns like “The Outlaw Josey Wales”. Ben Affleck made two Boston-set crime flicks before moving on to “Argo.” 

While it is unclear what LA-native Gordon-Levitt found familiar in this “Jersey Shore”-themed romance, “Don Jon” is one of those rare comedies that manages to carry emotional weight without ever letting up on the laughs. It handles adult sexual relationships and pornography in a way that is not parody or mockery, while also not being too serious to eliminate opportunities for humor. Overall, Gordon-Levitt delivered a solid first feature with “Don Jon,” and anticipations are high for his next directing venture.

Photo courtesty of FilmDistrict.

Time travel is tricky. The intricacies of it, the endless possibilities for paradox and timeline diffusion, can wreak havoc on a narrative, and the most brilliant touch of Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is the way it quickly dismisses any in-depth delving into its own logic.

“Looper” takes place 30 years from now, in a future where time travel has been invented but is only used by the mob for easy disposal of bodies. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, someone who kills victims sent back in time, and he struggles with the realities of his life even as his cash stacks up. Then he’s asked to “close his loop,” which means killing his future self (played by Bruce Willis). Unfortunately Old Joe has a different idea and easily escapes his youthful counterpart, sending the two off on a wild cat-and-mouse chase.

And that’s only the first half of the film. What makes “Looper” so special is the way that its central moral question doesn’t even come into play until well into its second act. Writer-director Johnson has turned in a film that isn’t afraid to play with the audience’s expectations of genre or narrative. Johnson’s script is full of intellectual and emotional complexities, and it asks some extremely difficult questions of the audience.

Perhaps my favorite part of “Looper” is how each character could be either the protagonist or antagonist, depending on your interpretation of the story.

However, none of this would work without Gordon-Levitt. He literally disappears into the role, wearing a prosthetic nose to resemble Willis, and it’s his best performance to date. Gordon-Levitt not only creates his own character here, but he also brings the characteristics of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars to the role without being distracting, and it’s uncanny how well he imitates Willis’ trademark smirk while still turning in moving, star-caliber work.

The rest of the cast is brimming with talented actors. Willis isn’t asked to stray too far from his comfort zone, but he is perhaps the film’s most interesting figure, a good guy doing horrible things for the right reason. Jeff Daniels is having a blast as Joe’s contact in the modern day, a crime boss who has some of the best lines in the film.

This is where I would normally discuss what I didn’t like about the film, but I honestly have no complaints to lodge against “Looper.” It’s a true science fiction triumph and a massive step forward for Rian Johnson. Johnson deploys some very neat visual tricks throughout the film and creates a fully rendered future for his characters, not to mention staging some pivotal moments with genuine cinematic flair.

At this year’s Fantastic Fest, movies of wildly varied genres from all over the world were screened, and the best film at that festival was easily “Looper.” When a studio film stands out amidst the bright lights of independent cinema, you know you’ve got something special on your hands, and “Looper” is certainly that. It’s one of the best films of the year, written with emotion and intelligence in mind and directed with an eye for economic but alluring visuals. Any fan of science fiction, noir or simply outstanding filmmaking would be loath to miss this one.

Printed on Friday, September 28, 2012 as: Two plain Joes embody complex roles of sci-fi time-jumping killers

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen star in Jonathan Levine’s cancer comedy “50/50.” (Photo coutesy of Chris Helcermanas/Benge Summit Entertainment)

By no means is it a stretch to call director Jonathan Levine’s career troubled. After all, his debut film “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” has yet to be released on American shores, and his sophomore effort, “The Wackness,” had a big buzz out at Sundance but ultimately floundered upon release. However, “50/50” is not only Levine’s first film to achieve a genuine theatrical release, but it’s also easily his best, a moving examination of screenwriter Will Reiser’s struggle with cancer.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a Reiser surrogate slapped with a cancer diagnoses that gives him a 50 percent chance of survival. The supporting cast is composed of those affected by his diagnosis, from best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and mother Diane (Anjelica Huston), as well as rookie grief therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick).

The film’s central relationship is between Kyle and Adam, and Rogen, a real-life friend of Reiser’s, is essentially playing himself here. It’s quite possibly Rogen’s best performance, and Kyle is kind of a self-serving jerk at times, not the constantly supportive best friend that often pops up in this kind of film. Rogen and Gordon-Levitt have a genuine chemistry and an easy energy together and many of the film’s best moments are between the two.

To be fair, the rest of the supporting cast is by no means slacking. Kendrick has been pigeonholed into playing brittle, emotionally unavailable types (even getting an Oscar nomination for such a role in “Up in the Air”), but her character here has softer edges, and it’s a warm, interesting performance. Huston is in the film much less than the rest of the cast, but she gets one of the big gut-punch moments late in the second act. Her relationship with Gordon-Levitt’s Adam is realistically complicated, with just the perfect balance of love and antagonism. As Adam’s girlfriend, Howard walks a fine line between vaguely sympathetic and absolutely repugnant, and the film wisely avoids classifying her either way.

Since “50/50” comes from such a personal place for Reiser, the film feels natural and honest and even when the it goes for big emotional moments, the vibe is never manipulative or cheap. Much of this is thanks to Gordon-Levitt, who gives perhaps his best performance yet as Adam. Levitt brings a potent mix of fear, courage and humor to the role, and more or less commands “50/50”’s balancing act between laughs and tears.

If there’s one weak aspect of the film, it’s the final moments. While the film doesn’t tie all of its loose ends up in a perfect bow, the moment it chooses to end on feels a little too trite and doesn’t make a ton of sense for the characters. Even so, it’s one weak note in a film full of strong ones, and Levine does some very good, understated work, letting the story take precedence over directorial style. Michael Giacchino, whose musical scores could easily be characterized as overbearing (even when they’re wonderful), works with equal restraint and his music is mostly used to punctuate a few of the film’s strongest moments.

“50/50” is a film that surely deserves some serious Oscar attention, for Gordon-Levitt’s performance, for Reiser’s screenplay and a case could even be made for Anna Kendrick in the Best Supporting Actress race. Even though the film doesn’t end on the strong, honest and emotionally resonant moments it shines in, so much of the film is beautifully written and acted that a weak ending is just an unsatisfying last bite in an utterly magnificent sandwich.

Printed on September 30, 2011 as: Comedy, cancer balanced in movie