It says a lot about the lead character in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s self-styled indie lark Don Jon that the character he created, a Jersey boy lothario patterned after the legendary lover, would rather have sex with himself than with the myriad of honeys he brings back to his crib. Oh, make no mistake about it, he beds these beauties as well, but Jon is addicted to porn, and as such, needs to have his trusty laptop around (and its arousing start-up sounds) to really quell his throbbing biological urges. As a seasoned veteran, an actor whose been around since the early ’90s, Gordon-Levitt understands the needs of onscreen entertainment. While he might be a bit rough around the edges when it comes to character and plot contrivances, he’s clearly evolved into a jack – or, perhaps, Joe – of many trades.
As Jon Martello, our star spends time working out, tending bar, and picking up available babes. He loves his family, loves his car, and loves the reputation he has with his MTV-ready pals Danny (Jeremy Luc) and Bobby (Rob Brown). He goes to church regularly, confesses his innumerable sins to his parish priest, and even makes time for his angry Italian dad (Tony Danza), long suffering mother (Glenne Headly) and disinterested sister (Brie Larson). And he loves his porn, and masturbating to same. Regularly. Almost all the time. One night, Jon meets his match in a blond bombshell named Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson). She refuses to sleep with him, making him “work” for a girl for the first time in his life. While trying to change things to please Barb, he ends up meeting an older woman named Esther (Julianne Moore) who might just be able to cure him of his carnal cravings once and for all.
After a stint as a child star and a regular on Third Rock from the Sun, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has graduated to the big leagues. He’s worked with Christopher Nolan in two of the director’s most ambitious and popular films (Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises). He’s had indie success with such offerings as Brick, (500) Days of Summer, Hersher, and Looper. Now comes his personal breakthrough, his chance to show that he is more a dashing leading man type with an incredibly viable future in the film business. Don Jon is like watching a far more well behaved Jersey Show. It takes the same beats presented on that awful reality show and polishes them for a more compelling and complex experience. We still get the same level of lunkheaded superficiality, but mixed in now are more sobering (and sober) details.
As the center of this sex storm, Gordon-Levitt succeeds on all levels. Sure, he relies a bit too much on the montage and repeats jokes like a well-worn Catskills comic, but for the most part, these are signs of growing pains, not permanent problems. Similarly, he shows a striking capability, as a director, toward casting and controlling performances. Tony Danza has never been this viable as a big screen presence, and by using Ms. Moore and Ms. Johansson as two sides of Jon’s interpersonal dilemma, we get a pair of standout female leads. For his part, Gordon-Levitt looks the part, and even puts on a presentable Jersey honk. But his previous wholesome persona, though tested on occasion, comes back to haunt him, turning Jon into something we should loathe but end up liking…at least, up to a point.
Indeed, our filmmaker truly finds the whole “porn addiction” angle beyond fascinating, and as other critics have accurately pointed out, there’s more hardcore material in this film (or at the very least, hinted at) than there is in a typical Vivid release. It’s never overly graphic or given over to XXX tendencies, but for the most part, Gordon-Levitt is from the school of “you gotta see it to believe it.” Also, the objectification of women makes for a delicate PC balancing act. Yes, we are dealing with a fictional ladies man and both Esther and Barbara prove that there is nothing better than watching a desperate, dogged male suffer, but this is still a film centering around a bunch of guys giving numerical ratings and labels (“dimes”) to the object of their one night stand desires. One senses that Gloria Steinman doesn’t have JoGoLe’s number on her iPhone speed dialer.
On the other hand, there are some interesting takes on the age old battle of the sexes themes here. Indeed, Jon’s issue is not commitment so much as that most hobbling of post-millennial maladies – a sense of entitlement. He believes he deserves the hottest girls, the ultimate satisfaction, and the permission to pleasure himself should the first two concept end up lacking. This is especially true when Jon tries to “win over” Barbara. He is forced to do things he would never ever do regularly, and Gordon-Levitt shows us the sad, sinking feeling that comes over his character. Similarly, when also see love as a competition, a basis for bragging rights among those with little or no shot at true happiness. While the movie makes jokes at the expensive of its collection of wannabe goombahs and guidos, the truth is that these 20-somethings are stuck in a cultural fad that will force them, one day, to either find away out or fall further into cliche.
Still, because of its raunchy exterior and often hilarious dialogue, Don Jon succeeds. It sells us on its contemporary update of a classic character while offering more proof that our lives are being destroyed by the Internet and its random access availability to everything and every kind of diversion. It also points to the problems facing couples circa 2013, to wit, the unrealistic expectations placed upon singles to look and act within a dynamic set up by already specious expectations. Going a step further, the film feels like an attempt to understand such individuals without having to fully explain or excuse them. This is also an indication that, no matter his past, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a future both in front and behind the lens. As a hyphenated horndog whose taken down a notch, he proves that sex remains both a weapon, and a weakness.