Robert Redford must be proud. Twenty-two years ago, he cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt, age 10, in his film A River Runs Through It. Seven years later, Redford cast Scarlett Johansson, age 13, in The Horse Whisperer. Remarkably, both young actors not only stayed in the business, they’ve thrived in it. Each is adept at genre hopping (from 500 Days of Summer to Lincoln and The Dark Knight Rises for Gordon-Levitt; from Lost in Translation to Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Avengers for Johansson). Both have achieved heartthrob status. She’s won a Tony Award, and he, like Redford, has begun writing and directing as well as acting. Gordon-Levitt’s debut feature, Don Jon, costars Johansson and opened yesterday. Earlier this month, the duo came together at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about it.
In one corner, Johansson holds court at a round table surrounded by a dozen reporters. She wears a hot pink sleeveless top with black lace, her hair is pulled back in a fashionably lumpy ponytail, and she is ludicrously beautiful. Most people’s facial features squat somewhere near their noses. Johansson’s are spread over the entire front of her head – lips and eyes and cheekbones as far as the eye can see: an endless landscape of gorgeosity. In a scene lifted from a Fellini movie, the stupefied journalists, trying hard to keep their cool, lob inane questions at her. To her credit, she takes each one seriously. Slowly, she formulates answers in her trademark husky voice; thoughtfully, she furrows her panoramic brow. (For the record: She loves the challenge of theatre work, she believes life is about taking risks, her addiction is buffalo sauce, and no, she doesn’t squirm when her boyfriend watches her love scenes.)
Across the room, Gordon-Levitt, wearing a plaid shirt, a knitted tie and zippy patterned socks, faces down a dozen reporters of his own. He leans forward over a low rectangular table, elbows on knees, and dispenses his answers with the zeal of someone who’s imbibed just the right amount of coffee – he’s made this movie, he’s chuffed about this movie, let’s talk about this movie!
Luckily, there’s much to discuss. Don Jon is an adult-rated social satire cleverly designed to lure multiplex audiences the way a bug zapper lures moths.
Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a New Jersey Lothario who spends his days at the gym, his nights at the bar scoring “dimes” (women who rate a 10 on his hotness scale), his Sundays at church with his Catholic family, and every other moment on Internet porn.
Believing that porn sex is real sex, he’s inevitably disappointed with his in-the-flesh encounters, no matter how numerous or vigorous. Until he meets Barbara (Johansson), who seems to be the gum-chewing Jersey girl of his dreams. Soon, though, he realizes that romantic comedies have addled her expectations of relationships as much as porn has addled his.
But somewhere in the middle, after Jon meets a woman struggling with grief (Julianne Moore), he and the movie deepen into something more. (Gordon-Levitt takes Moore’s character through some of the emotional turmoil that the director himself went through when his older brother, Daniel, died in 2010.) Because Gordon-Levitt’s script and directing are crisp and assured, and he imbues his character with the right amount of self-doubt, he’s able to pull off a story that has a moral without getting too smarmy.
“I’ve worked in movies and TV most of my life,” Gordon-Levitt says. “I’ve always paid attention to how the media influences and impacts people. Especially in the last few years, I’ve been hearing people say, ‘If only my life were like that movie,’ or ‘If only I had somebody like your character in the movie.’ I think it’s worth poking fun at. It’s a problem. Real life is not as simple as that. It’s a million times more beautiful, with details and nuances that you’ll miss – you’ll miss them – if you’re busy comparing your life to these simple stories that you get from a screen.”
I’m not sure, however, that I buy Gordon-Levitt’s idea that watching romantic comedies is as personality-altering as consuming vast amounts of porn, especially since having effortless access to porn 24/7 is a new phenomenon. When I tell him so, he sidesteps as nimbly as he did during his soft-shoe routine with Daniel Radcliffe at the last Oscars.
“I would draw more attention to our entire [media] culture rather than porn in particular,” he responds. “Whether it’s rated-X material on a website, or a commercial playing on the Super Bowl, the message is the same: Here’s this human being, but we’re reducing her – usually it’s a woman, though it happens to men, too – to this thing. That’s not a particularly healthy way to view human beings. Especially when you start mapping that attitude onto actual people.”
Johansson and Gordon-Levitt collaborated on her character; she suggested Barbara’s gum-chomping to further the idea of “someone who’s constantly consuming, constantly needing something to do,” Johansson says. She grins. “I chew a lot of gum anyway, so I was waiting for the opportunity to exploit that on film. I’m always being told to take gum out of my mouth, and finally I had a prop person standing by with a pack of it at all times.”
Gordon-Levitt wrote Barbara with Johansson in mind. “This is a movie about how media oftentimes oversimplifies men and women, love and sex,” he says. “Especially women. Scarlett is an acute example of that. She’s a really smart person, a talented artist. Yet a lot of our culture [defines her only] by her looks. And that’s not fair. I thought having her be part of this movie would help to illuminate some of the themes I wanted to talk about.”
Gordon-Levitt does acknowledge that the danger of making a movie about intoxicating images is that it has to include images that may intoxicate, so he tried to be judicious about his porn-clip choices. “I wanted you to feel like you’re inside Jon’s head, so I thought it was important that you see some of it,” he says. “But I very much wanted it to be a movie in the pop culture, that lots of people could see. So we found the balance, sampling images from real pornographic clips, but carefully edited and cropped. Hopefully it’s funny, too. I think the images in the right context are sort of hilarious.”
And also sad. Of course, the image of two dozen reporters asking Gordon-Levitt about his directing choices, his budgeting model (he made Don Jon independently, for less than $5-million) and his future projects (including HitRECord, a website on which artists from different disciplines can collaborate on projects; and HitRECord on TV, due in January) while asking Johansson about her female intuition and “what she learned about herself” from playing Barbara, is hilarious and sad, too. And underscores his point.