"Don Jon" A Capable Start For Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Filmmaker

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, formerly known as the kid from “Third Rock From The Sun” and “Angels In The Outfield,” has blossomed into a bona fide movie star, with memorable turns in “(500) Days Of Summer,” “Inception,” “50/50,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” and “Looper.” Gordon-Levitt’s screen presence is proven commodity at this point, but writing and directing are horses of a different color – and making one’s filmmaking debut with a romantic comedy about porn addiction is another matter entirely.

The ingredients for a disaster – difficult subject matter, a high profile cast, and a nondescript title – are all present in “Don Jon.” But while the film’s flaws are considerable, none are crippling, and the picture shows flashes of a burgeoning filmmaker whose off screen talents might one day equal his easy on screen charisma.

Gordon-Levitt stars as Jon Martello, a native New Jerseyan whose life revolves around five things – family, friends, church, working out, and internet pornography. It’s immediately clear which of those five things has the greatest hold on Jon, as his laptop’s startup sound is quickly positioned as a siren call of digital carnality. Like Pavlov’s dogs, his conditioned response to this vaguely melodic whooshing noise is instantaneous – a lustful call and response repeatedly confirmed by the film’s various carefully edited porn montages.

Jon’s view of women – one that his two best friends share – is accordingly warped, and he swears that no woman has ever satisfied him the way dirty movies do. The trio spends night after night in clubs ranking girls (out of ten), only for Jon to repeatedly take one home, seduce, and crawl out of bed at the first possible moment to get back to his computer. It’s a disturbing cycle of behavior that’s only reinforced by Jon’s tempestuous family life – and, even worse, incessantly laughed off by him and his buddies.

At the behest of his domineering mother, Angela (Glenne Headly) Jon decides to settle down, but the girl he fancies, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), is little more than a real-life archetype of the girls he watches online. Initially, Barbara’s attractiveness masks her off-putting personality, but soon her vapidity and lack of substance hits Jon like a freight train – even though his biggest reservation has to do with her scornful treatment of his porn habit.

The film’s first two acts come with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The sound design is shrill and the editing abrasive, the narrative delivered with all the grace of an actual porno. But as ugly as it is at times, that’s the point. These people don’t treat each other like people, and if Jon’s father, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza), was anything but a misogynistic pig, Jon might have a reason to aspire to better things – and there’d be no story.

The only multi-dimensional character in the piece comes in the form of one of Jon’s night school classmates, Esther, played effusively by Julianne Moore. Having suffered a major personal tragedy, Esther is broken, but her perspective on life allows her to see Jon for what he is – and call him out on his shortcomings. Julianne Moore is obviously much older than Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so her dual role as mother figure and possible romantic interest for Jon gives the film some much-needed depth.

Moore is terrific in the part, believably melding grief with hard-earned wisdom, as Esther brings out things in Jon that we – and he – didn’t know existed. Is it an unlikely love story? Perhaps. But the nature of the relationship is capricious, and in the company of so much shallowness, it feels vital and genuine. And it goes a long way in justifying the less palatable portions of the narrative.

“Don Jon” won’t blow any minds, but it’s a reasonably accomplished character piece that’s likely to connect with more adventurous audiences. As a romantic comedy in name only, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has trouble avoiding tonal inconsistencies – a problem inherent in genre-bending – and the film fails miserably in seriously addressing porn addiction. But there’s just enough charm and poignancy here to make it worth a watch. Not a bad start for any first-time filmmaker.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: September 27, 2013
Studio: Relativity Media
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Screenwriter: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Brie Larson, Glenne Headly
MPAA Rating: R (for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use)