New Jersey bartender and all-around ladies' man Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is all about his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his boys, his girls and his church. Oh, and he also watches porn on his computer several times every day, heading off to church at the end of the week to confess his sins and collect his Hail Marys. He's a ball of contradictions wrapped in the body of a slick-haired, muscle-bound guido. When he first sees Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) from across a crowded bar, he is instantly smitten. She plays hard-to-get at first, but when he can't get her out of his mind he tracks her down on Facebook. They meet for lunch, with Barbara sizing him up all along, then head to the movies to see a romantic comedy called "Special Someone" (Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway are hilarious in cameos as the overly sincere stars of the fictional film). Barbara loves cinematic love stories and has it in her mind that she deserves the kind of relationships she sees on the screen. Jon begins to view this sexy, gum-smacking (but not stupid) girl as more than just a sexual conquest, and the two start dating. When she catches him in the middle of the night watching porn, she feels betrayed and brings to light for Jon the possibility that he may have a bit of an addiction. Jon thinks he can stop any time, but quitting cold turkey isn't as simple or easy as he expects.
The penetrating writing-directing debut of gifted actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2012's "Looper
"), "Don Jon" is not so much about pornography as it is about sexual objectification and the often unrealistic expectations that people place on romantic relationships based on what society and the media tells them. Made for just a few million dollars, the film has busted through the barrier of most indie films, premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and promptly getting snapped up by Relativity Media and guaranteed a release on 2,000 screens. It doesn't matter how much "Don Jon" financially makes (with such a modest budget, it's destined to turn a profit). What matters is that it has already broken into the mainstream and proven that Gordon-Levitt is a triple threat, an artist who is one of the best actors of his age group, a smart, intuitive screenwriter, and a new filmmaker with his own style and intuition, to boot.
If it sounds like the film has a smarmy, smutty side, it is in the perceptive treatment of its subject matter that ensures this doesn't happen. The picture avoids misogyny, its female characters penned as strong and free-thinking with their own respective outlooks and values. Gordon-Levitt has made a sizzling romantic comedy with a dark undercurrent but an ultimately sensitive demeanor, all of the aforementioned ingredients lending more thematic meat to what is, overall, intended to be an entertaining diversion. That the story goes deeper than what one might expect is a testament to the man at the helm. It would have been easy for this material to fall into interminability, particularly with such a prickly protagonist. Gordon-Levitt is unapologetic in his treatment of Jon, who reminds of a "Jersey Shore" cast member at the onset before developing into a more complex individual. He's kind of a hypocrite in a lot of ways, sleeping around and then hotheadedly cursing at drivers on his way to church, but he also secretly sings to himself in his car when others aren't looking, enjoys cleaning his own apartment, and is devoted to his family. Beyond this, Gordon-Levitt is such a naturally magnetic presence onscreen that it's difficult not
to emotionally invest in him.
Scarlett Johansson (2012's "Hitchcock
") is on fire as the strong-headed, set-in-her-ways Barbara Sugarman. Adopting an authentic Jersey accent, Johansson confidently slinks through the picture, her insistence that her life be like the idyllic movies she watches only a setup for disappointment. It is obvious all of the things Jon is drawn to about Barbara, but there are also telling moments that suggest they aren't exactly right for each other, a scene where she is appalled to find out Jon enjoys doing housework riveting, uncomfortable and disconcerting all at once. When Jon signs up for a college course based on Barbara's suggestion, he has an awkward first few encounters with opinionated older student Esther, who catches him sneaking a peek at porn on his phone before class. Jon is initially turned off by her prying demeanor, but she is easy to talk to and willing to listen. Julianne Moore (2011's "Crazy, Stupid, Love.
") gives Esther an original, offbeat quality as she shields a melancholy tragedy from her past. Tony Danza (2005's "Crash
") gets his best role in years as Jon's abrasive but loving father, Jon Sr., while Glenne Headly (2010's "The Joneses
") is ingratiating as his mom, Angela, forever crossing her fingers that Jon settles down and gives her a grandbaby, and Brie Larson (2013's "The Spectacular Now
") steals laughs without saying hardly anything as his texting-obsessed, perpetually bored-looking sister, Grace.
"Don Jon" is a balancing act done right, palatable enough for wide adult audiences but truthful enough to skirt the commonplace. Despite falling in the "romantic comedy" camp, it is never obvious where things are headed or what is to become of Jon. The arc of his character from start to finish occurs gradually, but the growth he experiences is unmistakable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's script is an adept and dynamic one, but it isn't perfect. The decision to never show Jon at his work is an odd one; it is established in passing that he is a bartender, so one would imagine he is constantly faced with temptations at his job, but it is overlooked. All of the characters, in fact, seem to never be at work, leading one to wonder what they do for a living that gives them so much free time. This is a minor observation in the grand scheme of things, but it is worth mentioning. In most other ways, "Don Jon" is unexpectedly bold and finally endearing, an impressive first directorial effort from a performer who has clearly learned a lot from being on television and movie sets all his life. Gordon-Levitt is the undeniable real deal.