Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an assured debut as a writer-director with Don Jon, a cultural critique of the expectations placed on relationships in an environment saturated with media misrepresentations of both women and men. It’s a comedy ostensibly about porn, but that’s really just the skin Gordon-Levitt puts on his examination of modern love, the hook that belies his trenchant commentary on how we objectify—instead of connect with—the opposite sex.
Gordon-Levitt also stars as the titular Romeo, a sexy Jersey boy who brings home a different girl every weekend. He loves his bros and he loves his family, and he goes to church every Sunday, followed by a workout where he recites the Hail Marys he’s been assigned in confession in lieu of counting out reps. Gordon-Levitt is irresistible in the role, adopting the Situation’s swagger on-screen, donning it like a uniform before he joins his boys at the club.
Don’s also addicted to porn, though the “A” word isn’t emphasized, if used at all. In his aggressive, aptly applied voiceover, he explains the appeal of pictures and video over the real thing in a way that almost makes sense. Which isn’t to say pornography is romanticized here—it’s not. In fact, it’s really rather ugly in a way that Thanks for Sharing, another recent indie dramedy that deals with sex addiction, largely avoids.
Don’s streak with the ladies ends when he meets Barbara Sugarman (an alluring, gum-smacking Scarlett Johansson), a sexy Jersey girl who has her own screwed-up sense of what love should look like based on movies—not porn, but the romantic comedies she adores. She wants to meets his friends and family, for example—and see him enroll in night school—before she’ll get in the sack. And pornography? That’s a deal-breaker.
Gordon-Levitt goes in a refreshingly unexpected direction with this setup—one that won’t be spoiled here. But he lays clues along the way that hint at what really will turn Don’s life around—even if he doesn’t know he needs it. The film is stylistically repetitive, using Don’s weekly drive to church, confession, Sunday dinner and workout as touchpoints—what, we wonder, is going to shake up his routine?
Tony Danza is a scene-stealer, by the way, at those family meals as Don’s football-obsessed father. Unable to turn away from the tube even as he talks fondly about meeting his wife for the first time, Don Sr.’s got his own addiction to media. Meanwhile, Brie Larson appears as Don’s sister, constantly glued to her phone. She doesn’t say a word, in fact, for most of the movie. But when she finally speaks, it’s gold.
Don Jon demonstrates a deft sense of editing of both picture and sound by Gordon-Levitt and his editor, Lauren Zuckerman, emphasizing Don’s routine without letting it get boring. The signature hum of an Apple computer booting up, for example, becomes a signal—eventually, we don’t even need to see it to know what comes next. Meanwhile, cross-cutting between a nice, if kind of dull dinner and what he’d rather be doing (or watching) shows how pervasive porn has become in Don’s life, and time lapse illustrates his inevitable meltdown without lingering over it.
These visual and aural tricks aren’t gimmicks. Rather, they’re masterfully used tools integral to telling the story. When the soundtrack finally goes quiet, we know what’s happening is, finally, real.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Rob Brown, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Jeremy Luke
Release date: Sept. 27, 2013