Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s career has been marked by astute, varied choices: From child television actor on 3rd Rock from the Sun, he graduated to edgy indie films (Mysterious Skin, Brick) and finally, now in his 30s, as a piquant character actor (The Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln) and romantic lead (500 Days of Summer).
So what exactly is a Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie?
In Don Jon, his writing-directing debut, he has cast himself against type, bulking up his naturally slender body with gym muscle, and playing a serial seducer and a porn addict.
Is he still adorable? Well, of course he is. He’s just adorably provocative. Don Jon is a far cry from the anguish of Steve McQueen’s Shame: The filmmaking is slick and lively, with pumping music, snappy editing and enough raunchy humour to appeal to the young-male demographic.
The character of Don Jon is intended as a contemporary version of the legendary libertine Don Juan, whose exploits have been dramatized by Molière, Mozart and Byron. The model here seems to be Mike (The Situation) Sorrentino, of the reality show Jersey Shore, here reborn as a Joisey-accented Italian-American bartender, Jon Martello, who has a reputation with his buddies for regularly bedding women who come to his club. He keeps a compulsively itemized list of priorities (a variation on Sorrentino’s “gym, tan, laundry”) that goes like this: “My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.”
Church and porn? While the traditional Don Juan was all about sin and damnation, things are obviously easier today. Whenever Jon goes to weekly confession, he admits to the usual sexual intercourse out of wedlock and double-digit masturbation numbers, and the unseen priest hands him a standard easy penance. Later, Jon recites the prayers while doing reps at the gym. This Don Jon isn’t bound for hell, just the purgatory of days on porn sites, filling wastebaskets with wadded tissues.
What becomes increasingly apparent is that Gordon-Levitt hasn’t exactly decided what Jon’s problem is, in a character that seems partly an expression of male wish fulfilment. Sure, it’s a little creepy that he prefers porn to sex with real girls. As he tells us in voice-over, he doesn’t like the missionary position because you have to look at the woman’s face. Firing up the laptop is less demanding, but since Jon has a busy social life and a job, and feels no deep guilt, the only real issue seems to be the annoyance of other people’s expectations.
First up are Jon’s parents, whom he sees for Sunday dinners that all resemble the early scenes in Saturday Night Fever. Mom (Glenne Headly) laments that Jon can’t find a nice girl and give her grandchildren, while Dad (Tony Danza) yells at the family and the football game on TV, and his sister (Brie Larson) spends her time monitoring her smartphone. Waiting for her to finally speak, and say something meaningful, is one of the movie’s running gags.
The other problem is Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a hottie in a curve-clinging red dress who shows up at the club one night. Jon thinks she is “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen” – with the emphasis on thing. Though she snaps gum and speaks in the same accent he does, Barbara is a princess. She likes vacuous romantic movies and thinks it’s déclassé for people to clean their own apartments. She also holds out on sex until he’s hooked, and even during dry-humping outside her apartment door negotiates a few deals: He’ll meet her family. He’ll go back to school to improve himself.
When Jon can’t curb his dependence on porn, Barbara takes it as a personal insult. While another movie might treat this as mere romantic stumbling block to be overcome, Gordon-Levitt has something else in mind. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly clear what. The movie gets preachy as it rolls toward its third act, where we discover that the key to Don Jon’s salvation is one of his night-school classmates. A middle-aged woman named Esther (Julianne Moore), who is a bit of an emotional mess, befriends him. She cries easily, smokes dope before class and has a backstory that finally unlocks Jon’s empathy receptors.
Alone in the movie, Moore suggests a character with a believable interior life. But she’s a good deal older than Jon, and doesn’t raise family-and-kid commitment issues, so the film’s conclusion carries implications that may not be entirely intentional: Is Jon’s emotional blockage toward the women he meets caused by the modern scourge of online porn? Or is he just an old-fashioned mama’s boy?