"Don Jon": Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a porn-addicted Lothario

Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes his directing debut as Jersey legend "Don Jon," opposite the amazing Scarlett Johansson

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published September 25, 2013 3:09PM (EDT)

As you might suspect from its title, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s winsome writing and directing debut “Don Jon” is a comic fable about an inveterate Lothario defeated by love, and much of its charm lies in watching the likable Gordon-Levitt play against type as a muscle-bound Jersey boy absolutely free of any introspection or self-reflection. If the eponymous Jon comes pretty close to being an ethnic stereotype – he’s a good-hearted cousin to Tony Soprano, devoted to his Camaro, his church, his spick-and-span bachelor pad and his mother – Gordon-Levitt’s such a commanding physical actor, such a master of tone and nuance, that he’s always fun to watch. Even the way Jon stomps down the corridors at his gym, or says his Hail Marys and Our Fathers while doing chin-ups, conveys the sense of a man dominated by routines he doesn’t understand.

I don’t know how many guys in Jon’s demographic are likely to see this movie – close to none, probably – and I can’t possibly know whether they’d find it hilarious or condescending (or some of both). “Don Jon” is medium-weight satire rather than social commentary, but the thread of faint but persistent unhappiness that runs through Jon’s placid existence is highly convincing. He’s acclaimed as the best-looking guy in his inner-suburban town (the exteriors were mainly shot in Hackensack, for you Garden Staters). He goes home with a different long-legged, lustrous-haired nightclub beauty every weekend; never less than an 8, he insists. (When one previous conquest confronts him on the dance floor, he says incredulously: “You’re a big girl. You really thought I was going to call you?”)

And boy, oh boy, does he watch porn. Multiple times a day. In fact, after having sex with the girls he brings home, Jon sneaks out of bed while they’re asleep to hit the Internet hard. And here’s the biggest problem I had with “Don Jon,” a movie whose atmosphere and acting are immensely entertaining: This central plot device is so dumb. Sure, I guess porn addiction exists, and I don’t doubt that the social prevalence of pornography has affected the sexual imagination and people’s love lives. But in this case it doesn’t feel like it’s really what the movie’s about. It’s almost as if Gordon-Levitt came up with this great character who’s stuck in a rut-like existence he doesn’t even realize is a rut, and then grafted this semi-important cultural issue onto him, as a way of symbolizing his dilemma. It never feels organic, and in fact I never believed that porn was Jon’s real problem.

I felt a lot more in tune with the guy, actually, during the Swiffer scene. This is jumping ahead a little bit, when Jon discovers that Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), the drop-dead, bombshell, perfect-10 and maybe-Jewish new girlfriend who has tamed and disciplined him, might not be everything she’s cracked up to be. They’re in Home Depot or someplace similar, buying some shelving that Jon’s gonna drill into her walls (of course), when he says he’s got to hit the cleaning-products aisle for some Swiffer refills. Barbara doesn’t know what that is. She has clearly never swept a floor; her mom’s Latina maid does the housecleaning, and she’s horrified that Jon does it himself. Backing her remarkable butt into him and making a you-are-forgiven-for-now kissy-face, Barbara makes clear that when they move in together his Swiffering days are done.

Maybe it’s a broad comedy role in an insignificant film, but I can hardly even explain to you how enjoyable Johansson is here; anyone who believes she underplays or cannot act has yet to meet Barbara Sugarman. Fully accessorized, highlighted, entitled and faux-humble, Barbara is a nightmarish vision of prepackaged gorgeousness against which Jon has no chance. I swear, when they kiss you can smell the gum. (That sour-apple kind, with sparkles.) As usual in Jon’s life, he doesn’t quite realize what’s happening, but Barbara soon pushes him into what one of his pals dubs the “long game”: bringing her home to meet his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly, both doing shtick but very funny), taking her to rom-coms (we see snippets of one involving Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum), declaring an absolute moratorium on all that porn.

Or so Jon tells Barbara, anyway, just as he tells the priest who hears his weekly confession, and who appears to prescribe the same regimen of Hail Marys and Our Fathers no matter what Jon confesses. But Jon hasn’t even come close to shaking the porn habit, which if nothing else draws the attention of Esther (Julianne Moore), a mildly mysterious older woman in his night-school class. “Excuse me, but are you watching people fucking on your phone?” she asks, more in the spirit of curiosity than judgment.

I’m not sure that Gordon-Levitt completely pulls off the sudden shift in tone that follows when Jon unexpectedly pivots from Barbara to Esther, and just as suddenly stops putting gel in his hair and starts asking questions about family, religion and so forth. But I found myself utterly charmed by the generosity of vision and the dramatic ambition at work here; it’s as if a mid-‘90s Italian-American sex farce (definitely co-starring Joe Pesci) had suddenly turned into a Henry Miller novel. This is a sweet, lively and funny movie rather than a fully realized one, but it makes clear that Gordon-Levitt has a natural feeling for cinema and should do more of it. As for Jon, I’m completely fine with the idea that a love affair with a grieving, pot-smoking cougar, however short or long it may last, provides him with a Huck Finn raft-ride into a new life. Internet porn helped launch him on that journey, and so did Swiffer.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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