In the week following MTV's annual Video Music Awards ceremony, it seemed everyone had something to say about Miley Cyrus' immediately infamous performance, which introduced the term "twerking" to most of America. (A month later, she's still a hot topic of conversation: The young singer is topless on the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine.) Joseph Gordon-Levitt was no exception — sort of.
The young star of movies as varied as the quirky romantic comedy "(500) Days of Summer," the high-school noir "Brick" and box office smashes "Inception" and "The Dark Knight Rises" was in Washington a few days after the awards to promote his directorial debut, "Don Jon," which opens nationwide Friday. Mr. Gordon-Levitt attended the awards, but that wasn't why we discussed the display in which the 20-year-old former Disney sweetheart grinded herself against 36-year-old singer Robin Thicke. "Don Jon" is about a man (played by the writer-director) whose seemingly perfect relationship with a sweet and impossibly attractive girl (played by Scarlett Johansson) falls apart when she discovers his pornography habit. The film confronts head-on the relationships between men, women and our hypersexualized culture and the media that feed it.
"I was at the VMAs. There were also some really great performances," said Mr. Gordon-Levitt in an interview with The Washington Times. "I thought Lady Gaga was awesome. She was mostly naked, but I don't think she was reducing herself to a thing. Certainly, her sexuality was a part of that performance. But she had a lot of heart, was genuinely having fun, and freaking out to music."
Does that mean that he thought Miley Cyrus was "reducing herself to a thing," then?
"I think..." Mr. Gordon-Levitt begins, before stopping in a long pause. It's apparent he tried choosing his words carefully before giving up on uttering any at all. He was too diplomatic, one supposes, to pile on a young woman most of the country was criticizing.
Mr. Gordon-Levitt doesn't pull such punches in his directorial debut, fortunately.
"I wanted to take some risks and do something distinct and singular and give the audience something to have a conversation about when they were walking out of the theater," Mr. Gordon-Levitt said. "I didn't want to play it safe and just make a competent movie. I wanted to say something."
The movie might shock many — we see a bit of the pornography that the title character can't stop watching — but those that would be most shocked would also most appreciate its message. Mr. Gordon-Levitt himself feels the same way about much tamer stuff, such as a Carl's Jr. television ad that sells hamburgers using enthusiastically gratuitous shots of a model in a swimsuit. He licensed that ad for his film.
"It is shocking. But that's a real ad, and there are plenty more like it," he said. "It's been a big part of our culture for as long as you can find history. That people, especially women, are often pigeonholed and reduced to things. That's kind of the crux of what the movie's about, how some people treat people more like things than people. And then how media plays into that. Which is why a story about a young man who watches too much pornography going out with a woman who watches too many Hollywood romantic comedies would be a funny way to get that theme."
But making his point by having some of that explicit material in "Don Jon" is sure to alienate many potential viewers who would otherwise cheer a 32-year-old Hollywood actor making a movie about the pernicious nature of our hypersexualized culture.
"I guess I'm an optimist. I like to think that people can change," said Mr. Gordon-Levitt. "That's why I wanted to tell a story about a Don Juan-type of character. Don Juan, throughout his iterations, has been that archetype of someone who reduced women to just a thing for his consumption. Don Juan traditionally is a tragedy. I like to think that even a Don Juan-type character could evolve, could change."
Mr. Gordon-Levitt also got out of his comfort zone a bit in writing the film: He's a Jewish guy raised in California who's made his first movie about a New Jersey Catholic. "I grew up in the suburbs of L.A. I wanted to make the movie set in an ordinary middle-income setting, as opposed to a lot of romantic comedies that are set in very affluent places — Manhattan or London or places like that," he said.
Don Jon's Catholicism proves to be an important part of his journey to become a good man. But the journey he takes can — and should — be universal.
"To me, the basic story is a guy whose every facet of his life is a one-way street. He's not connecting or engaging with anything and just going through the motions and just checking the boxes. The church is no exception. He's got his checklist of the things he's supposed to do and he does them," he said. "But by the end of the movie, he's beginning to say, 'What are these items on the checklist? What's going on here?' He's trying to connect with all these different things in his life instead of having just this one way."
The child actor from TV's "3rd Rock from the Sun" has certainly grown up as well.