Contrary to widespread popular belief, not all child stars end up self-destructing. Rather than descending into drugs, getting arrested or, ahem, twerking on stage at the MTV awards, some just go about their business and become bona fide adult talents.
Case in point: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
This Friday, “Don Jon,” a hilarious (and eventually moving) new comedy that he wrote, directed and starred in opens at multiplexes. It’s Gordon-Levitt’s first foray into directing but, from the critical high fives the film is receiving, it likely won’t be his last.
Gordon-Levitt, now 32, became famous playing Tommy Solomon, a fiercely intelligent older alien disguised on Earth as a wry-looking adolescent in the long-running sitcom, “3rd Rock from the Sun” (1996–2001). Before finding steady employment there, he’d been acting on TV shows (including “Dark Shadows” and “Roseanne”) and in films (“A River Runs Through It” and “Angels in the Outfield”) since he was 6 years old.
After leaving “3rd Rock” to attend Columbia University for a couple years, he returned to acting and began slowly building an impressive body of work, mostly in edgy indie fare such as “Mysterious Skin” (2004), “The Lookout” (2007), “(500) Days of Summer” (2009) and “50/50” (2011). Rather than playing conventional stalwart heroes, he explored complex characters such as a gay hustler, a brain-damaged former high school athlete and a young man dying of cancer.
Not that he totally deserted mainstream Hollywood. In recent years, he has popped up in bigger budgeted studio fare, including Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (2011), “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012).
In “Don Jon,” he plays Jon Martello, a young, working class lothario in New Jersey who spends his non-working hours at the gym or hitting on the ladies at local clubs. Sunday mornings, he goes to church and confesses his sins to a priest and then says his assigned Hail Marys while lifting weights.
Jon’s real passion, though, is for online porn. Despite the ease with which he can talk most women into jumping into bed with him, he prefers sex alone, in front of his laptop, to human interaction. He’s self-aware enough to know that this inability to truly connect isn’t a good thing.
One night at a club he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a gum-chewing, bossy beauty for whom he falls hard. He pursues her relentlessly and, once they’re a steady twosome, he tries hard to give up his porn addiction and become the man she’s trying to mold him into. Leaving the laptop liaisons behind, however, proves much more difficult than he expected until he forms an unlikely friendship with an older woman (the always welcome Julianne Moore).
“Don Jon” is about porn in the same way that “Breaking Bad” is about drugs. While the movie makes telling points about the pervasiveness of porn in our culture (one of the movie’s biggest laughs comes when it shows an actual commercial for the Carl’s Jr. fast food chain in which a scantily clad, buxom babe bites suggestively into a burger), it’s really about the need for human contact and deep connections.
If Miley Cyrus is looking for a role model — besides Britney Spears or Madonna — she’d do well to turn her attention to Gordon-Levitt and what he has accomplished since becoming a grown-up. Or she could focus on Claire Danes or Ryan Gosling (he was actually a Mouseketeer alongside Spears and Justin Timberlake in “The New Mickey Mouse Club” in the early '90s) or, the poster child for how-to-do-it-right-after-child-stardom, Jodie Foster.
As adults, each of them has demonstrated that the key to a successful and rewarding career is to concentrate on the work itself, not the publicity or the persona. Even for those of us in less glamorous fields, that’s not a bad path to follow.