Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a Lothario who spends a tremendous amount of time in thrall to an avalanche of online pornography? It doesn’t sound like a date movie, the way (500) Days of Summer sounded like one and, in fact, was one.
But the actor, who is also a writer and director, has ambition and a little nerve. And with his crafty debut feature, Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt has written himself a comfortable yet disarming change of pace—that of a smooth, calculating Don Juan type re-imagined for today, but it’s a version of modern times existing in a heightened fablelike or theatrical state, as if presented on an Elizabethan stage.
We’re in Padua, New Jersey. Jon Martello, whose father (played by a muscled-up Tony Danza) is a lot to live up to and a lot to live down, is the king of the layaway artists. Jon’s a gym rat whose self-image rests on three things: the nearest available bed, with the nearest available woman; his narcissistic, guarded soul; and a steady stream of images ingested from his days and nights and hours and hours and hours spent with online porn.
How does this furtive activity affect his “real” life, and is it a real life to speak of, if lived the way he’s living it? Gordon-Levitt developed Don Jon from a notion of competing sexual and romantic fantasies. While Jon’s head swims in autoerotic imagery, his new love, Barbara, brings to their relationship a host of specific expectations fed by too many screen romances of the non-porn variety.
Barbara, played with juicy vitality by Scarlett Johansson, looks like a million sexual daydreams come true, and in this Jersey goddess Jon has finally found someone he can bring home to his parents. (Glenne Headly is very funny as his squalling mother, a perfect match for Danza’s working-class man’s man.) Yet this new squeeze doesn’t understand how Jon could spend time maintaining a clean apartment. “You’re a grown man,” she says. “You shouldn’t be doing your own floors.”
She’s stuck in a decade from before she was born, while the sex addict Jon’s stuck in a digital Candyland populated by depictions of women good for only one thing. Don Jon isn’t saying anything new about the way popular media and the online maw objectify the living daylights out of women especially. But Gordon-Levitt makes this guy’s journey to real adulthood an artfully cinematic breeze, explicit enough to be truthful, quick enough to keep it buoyant.
There’s another major character, played by Julianne Moore, a woman who has 20 or so years on Jon. They meet in a college night class. She has a secret. They make a connection, and for Jon, it’s different than every other faux connection he’s made before it. Moore’s wonderful as always, but the entire film has been cast well. Behind the camera, Gordon-Levitt shows serious promise, and the short films he has directed previously—under his hitRECord production company—all gravitate toward the search for love amid a tangle of phony romantic promises. (Check out the visually fanciful Morgan M. Morgansen’s Date With Destiny, or its sequel, some time.)
Against the backdrop of everything in the culture designed to keep visual consumers in a suspended “hornified” state, to borrow a made-up word heard in Date With Destiny, Jon’s addiction seems both extreme and mundane. That’s why Don Jon, in its compact form, works. It’s a dark comedy about matters of the heart, and how far some people go to take their minds off such matters.
Don Jon (R) ★★★☆☆