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Q&A: 'Don Jon' star/writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt

September 23, 2013|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

Many people want to believe that what they see in movies is real.

In "Don Jon," buff Jersey guy Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) prefers his one-way, fantasy-driven relationship with porn to the two-way intimacy of countless one-night stands and a bond with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who believes romantic comedies reflect how real love should be. Opening Sept. 27, Gordon-Levitt's feature debut as a writer and director aims to show that both characters need to separate what they see on screen from the more complex scenarios in front of them.

Similarly, the 32-year-old California native in person isn't the easygoing open book he sometimes seems when charming in "(500) Days of Summer" or dancing on "SNL." Gordon-Levitt long has prioritized his public anonymity so he can transition between greatly different parts (in films like "Brick," "50/50" and "Looper"), and that protectiveness leads him to filter most answers through his characters.

At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, JGL talked about romantic/pornographic fantasies, the arguable variety of porn and daily/weekly masturbation numbers that seem really, really high.

You've talked a lot about how this movie shouldn't just be seen as a porn story, that it's about the way people objectify each other. Do you see this as an edgy love story or a conservative porn addiction story?
[Laughs.] Probably the former. Yeah. I don't think it's a story about pornography. Certainly that's a central symbol in the movie, but it's sort of about how people treat each other like things. And I think pornography is one of the examples in the movie, but there's lots of pieces of lots of different kinds of media in the movie. And I think that there's plenty of examples of mainstream media, whether it's movies or TV shows or commercials or anything else, that are just as guilty of that as pornography is. Of reducing, especially women, to sex objects.

Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay that was in the book “Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” about romantic comedies. Have you read that?
No, I haven’t.

It was published about 10 years ago and in it he said, “I once loved a girl who almost loved me but not as much as she loved John Cusack. Here’s what none of these upwardly mobile women seem to realize: They don’t love John Cusack; they love Lloyd Dobler.”
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s really well put.

That was written 10-15 years ago. Obviously, you still think that women in particular are seeing these romantic comedies and thinking that’s love. You think people still believe that?
Yeah, it’s a seductive fantasy to have because it’s so simple and appealing for its simplicity. I think that love in real life is actually a lot more beautiful than that.

When you're talking about "Say Anything" or some other older movies, there's so much more of an example for people to fall in love with. Now, when you look at something like "The Ugly Truth" from a few years ago, that's a great example of women being forced into a box and being told they can't have a career and love and that kind of thing. So I'm surprised that you think people still see romantic comedies that way.
Well, a lot of people still do see them that way though. This is a fantasy on a screen. I like movies that show things to be more complicated and not so simple and not just have a completely happy ending or a completely tragic ending but somewhere in between. `Cause to me that's more reflective of real life. No matter what the movie is, really it can't map onto real life because a movie is a movie. You're watching it. The people on the screen don't know you're there. And so love is all about in my opinion an interplay between two people who are acting and reacting and connecting in that way, and that's I think why the symbol of pornography is a really good one of, "Here's this guy getting off on an image on a screen that's not connected to him in any way." It's a one-way street. And the same thing goes for Scarlett's character watching these romantic comedies. It's just a one-way thing.

Something that’s not really touched on in the movie is the notion of porn as an outlet for variety. Jon is used to having not just all of this porn-watching but an influx of a different woman every night. I wonder if he’s in the setting of being in a monogamous relationship and he’s not watching porn anymore-- that outlet for variety is something that a lot of people use to defend porn-watching.
Yeah, you could say that porn offers variety, but you could also make I think an equally good argument that there’s no variety at all. Sure, technically there are different women in each video, but they’re all behaving in exactly the same way. And they’re all doing exactly the same thing.

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