Why you should care

Joseph Gordon-Levitt transitions from child star to fine young actor right before your eyes.

Nowadays, who doesn’t love Joseph Gordon-Levitt? The writer, director and star of the recently released Don Jon, which takes the concept of a date movie to a whole other place, has been deftly balancing critically acclaimed indie films like Premium Rush with blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises and popping up in various musical spoofs that remind us of what a multitalented guy he is.

So maybe it’s fairer to ask: How’d he manage to put his days as the kid on 3rd Rock from the Sun so far behind him? Mastering the tricky transition from precocious child star into serious and versatile young actor, Gordon-Levitt had a run of great performances in small but worthy movies, with 2005’s Brick being arguably his most striking crossover role.

French Stewart, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kristen Johnston in 3rd Rock From The Sun, 1996-2001

French Stewart, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kristen Johnston in 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Source © Carsey-Werner/Courtesy Everett Collection

Brick is straight-up film noir, complete with feverishly hard-boiled patter, but set within the social strata of a modern Southern California high school. A gimmick? So you’d think, until you see how well it works. For what is high school if not a dark cauldron of ominous, hyperreal, subjective intensity? Gordon-Levitt may have grown up on TV, but this basic truth he very plainly understands. Much of what’s still so exciting about Brick is the sense that writer-director Rian Johnson has a clear vision and a lead player who just completely gets it.

Noah Fleiss and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick, 2005

Noah Fleiss and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick.

Source Focus Features/Everett Collection

Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a sullen loner getting to the bottom of his ex-girlfriend’s recent disappearance – into a properly noirish lethal underworld, it turns out – which also involves getting to the bottom of his feelings for her. Here, at an early morning meeting in the school library with his lone ally, the Brain (Matt O’Leary), Brendan takes stock of his situation and decides to go all in. As is the case throughout the film, it’s thrilling to see him make short work of the exquisite language without ever getting bogged down by it. Johnson has pointed out that Gordon-Levitt also is a musician and, accordingly, approached his Brick dialogue as an interpreter of lyrics.

After Brick deservedly won a Sundance Special Jury Prize for originality of vision, Johnson’s career took off and later would include writing and directing Looper, also starring Gordon-Levitt, and directing some episodes of TV phenomenon Breaking Bad. As for Gordon-Levitt? He seems to have turned out all right, too. Just ask his Don Jon co-star Scarlett Johansson.

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