Talk about having your cake and eating it too. For his debut as a writer and director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt pens a script that gives him the opportunity to grope and “bed” a bevy of gorgeous women (capping it off with Scarlett Johansson), and gets the last laugh by putting a fair amount of depth into his study of a very shallow man. “Don Jon” feels a bit like a comedic version of “Shame,” the infamous wow-look-at-Michael-Fassbender’s-penis movie, but in reality the two leads are alike only in that they’re broken men who like to score. Where “Shame” was more of a character study, “Don Jon” is focused on a societal problem.
Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a buff, handsome, free-living Jerseyite. Each week, he and his two best buds hit the club, and Jon manages to score a “10” every time, earning him the nickname Don Jon. And yet, even after sex with these beautiful women, Jon heads to his laptop to surf for porn. (We don’t know this for a fact, but www.pornhub.com may be the first adult web site to strike a product placement deal in a mainstream motion picture.) One night, he sees Barbara (Johannson), and is positively smitten, but still likes his porn. The two soon date, and when she discovers his vice, she’s horrified, even though her fascination with Hollywood romance films (the film within the film has two killer cameos) has given her equally warped notions of love. Enter Esther (Julianne Moore), a fellow night school student in Jon’s class who’s able to give Jon the one thing he truly needs: perspective.
Truth be told, “Don Jon” probably seems better because it was written and directed by someone who wasn’t previously known for writing or directing. The element of surprise works heavily in Gordon-Levitt’s favor here, though that’s not to say the praise is undeserved. We’ve seen other actors try their luck behind the camera, and fail miserably (ahem, Laurence Fishburne, “Once in the Life”), so give credit where credit is due: Joseph Gordon-Levitt has an eye for directing and writes direct, believable dialogue.
He does, however, stack the deck against Johannson’s character in a ridiculous manner, and to her credit, she seems to relish playing the gum-snapping JAP (emphasis on the P) with a pathological drive to call all, and we mean all, the shots in their relationship. It makes sense that Gordon-Levitt would do this – after all, Jon is the protagonist, and the surefire way to redeem him is to make his dream girl even more messed up than he is – but one could argue that he’s taking the path of least resistance by doing so. He does a better job with the rest of the cast, particularly Jon’s family members. Tony Danza gets his best role in decades as Jon’s mouthy, needlessly aggressive father, and positively owns it. Brie Larson plays Jon’s sister, and she’s equally funny for the opposite reason: she’s Silent Bob with a smart phone, and when she speaks, you should listen. Moore was an inspired choice for Esther. Arguably the most wounded character in the movie, Moore masterfully taps into both Esther’s free spirit and her pain.
It would be very easy to point fingers when discussing the objectification of women, and while he does make examples out of a few offenders (namely Carl’s Jr.), Gordon-Levitt is more interested in finding a solution than laying blame. That Jon’s solution turns out to be unconventional adds to the charm of “Don Jon.” Heck, the fact that one can think of a movie about a guy hooked on porn as charming is high praise.