The Joseph Gordon-Levitt who stars in Don Jon bears little resemblance to the actor as he appeared in his last indie version of a romantic comedy, 2009’s 500 Days of Summer. There, he played a clean-cut, sweater-wearing, Smiths-loving romantic; for Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt bulks up his muscles, mimics an Italian-Jersey-American accent, and gels up his hair to play the titular lothario.
The performance could come off as an elaborate affectation, but Gordon-Levitt seems perfectly at ease, even more than when he’s striving for regular-guy status in a movie like Summer. The cosmetic changes free him, as they did in movies like Looper and Mysterious Skin, to physicalize his character, a specialty for Gordon-Levitt, who sometimes looks restless when buttoned up. Jon is built on broad gestures, from the confident strut of his walk to his profane aggression behind the wheel of his beloved car. If Gordon-Levitt has sometimes looked eager to please, Jon is mostly eager to please himself, as evidenced by his dedication to online pornography. He confesses, in voiceover, that he prefers it to actual sex.
For the first time writing and directing his own film, Gordon-Levitt takes on the romantic comedy. But the film is not just an anti-romantic comedy, not one of those projects where the characters are vulgar, bitter or otherwise unpleasant, before they go on to conform to the genre’s standards. Don Jon is “anti” in that the genre’s motions don’t provide the expected emotional catharsis. After nights and nights of casual hook-ups, Jon meets a girl who makes him feel differently, a girl who, in another movie, would redeem him.
But Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) isn’t quite that. A pink-clad, gum-chewing “dime” (in the parlance of Jon and his friends, a perfect 10) of a Jersey girl, she won’t go to bed with Jon right away, insisting instead that they go on proper dates, that she meet his friends and family, that he come up with some version of self-improvement. First condition: Jon must stop watching porn. It feels like it should be a turning point for Jon, a by-the-book cad’s reformation motivated by the denial of sex. But within the basic outlines of a committed relationship, Jon and Barbara aren’t actually connecting. Jon still looks at porn, but in secret. He adjusts his routines for Barbara, but he’s still stuck in them.
Gordon-Levitt shows us these routines through repetitions. Again and again, the camera cuts between Jon and whatever girl he meets at the club, pans pan across Jon and his family in the pews at church, observes Jon working out at the gym while muttering his confession-assigned penance under his breath. Most often, we see Jon booting up his laptop, then a used tissue sailing into a garbage can.
Some reviewers have compared this technique to another, more severe addiction story, Requiem for a Dream. Like Darren Aronofsky’s heroin addicts, Jon reduces his life to component parts, an effort the film represents mechanically. But these parts — time with family and friends, his workout regimen, his appearance at church — here represent perfectly healthy interests. The problem for this addict is that these other habits don’t provide the boost he gets from porn, and neither do his attempts to win over Barbara. This leads to frustrations, often very funny, and also soon routine.
This focus on routine serves Gordon-Levitt’s obvious thesis statement as well, that men and women find ways not to connect with one another. Both Barbara and Jon seek familiar models of behavior: as he clouds his relationships with the fantasy of porn girls, she clouds hers with the somewhat more socially acceptable fantasy of romantic movies (amusing movie-within-movie samples of Barbara’s preferred genre star a handful of very recognizable actors). Another cliché appears in the form of the mysterious older woman Esther (Julianne Moore), who provides a convenient opening for Jon to care about a woman beyond his need for sex, though this relationship resembles his porn fantasies, in its built-in distance.
That’s all to say that Gordon-Levitt’s female characters lack dimension. Johansson (ably riffing on a type she’s played with on her Saturday Night Live hosting gigs) and Moore (warm and empathetic) are both fine, but their characters exist to service Gordon-Levitt’s. But then, Jon lacks dimension, too. The movie is about his aspirations, for more intimacy, for more maturity. Don Jon offers similar promises for Gordon-Levitt as a filmmaker: he’s pretty good, and he may get even better.