With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly. Written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use. 90 minutes.
Let us now praise Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The popular young TV and movie actor has already scored in a number of films, including “Inception” and “Lincoln.” Now he spreads his wings not only as an actor but as screenwriter and director. If DON JON is an example of what he can do, he should have a long and fascinating career ahead of him.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Jon Martello, a working class guy in Brooklyn with parents (Tony Danza, Glenne Headly) who wonder when he’s going to settle down and get married. However, Jon is having too much fun scoring with the ladies, and sets his sights for only the most attractive and sexy women who cross his path. Yet in spite of being a hero to his buddies, his life is empty.
This becomes obvious when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) who is gorgeous, enthusiastic in bed, and everything he could ask for in a woman. Yet he’s still not satisfied. The only things that can really satisfy him are his sessions with internet pornography. It is by taking men’s obsessions with porn seriously–rather than simply treating it as a dirty joke–where Gordon-Levitt turns “Don Jon” into a movie with something to say.
Barbara has definite plans for Jon. They don’t include porn but they do include him making something of himself. He takes a night class where he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman who first seems ditzy but turns out to have some important life lessons for Jon. Between the laughs and a bit of leering, what “Don Jon” is really about is a young adult male realizing he is an adult and no longer a teenager who only has to focus on his own needs. This may be the first film about pornography that focuses not on the seedy purveyors of sexually explicit material, but on its consumers. Gordon-Levitt shows how Jon is using his online escapades as an escape from reality, but also shows why he might do so. The no-strings “sex” he experiences online turns out to be far more satisfying and liberating than dealing with an actual woman.
It is at that point that the film changes from what was a somewhat kinky romantic comedy to a somewhat sophisticated coming-of-age film. Jon has things to learn and Gordon-Levitt is doesn’t hold back in showing what the cost will be for Jon in becoming an adult. By treating Jon with sympathy but without sentimentality, Gordon-Levitt has given us a daring portrait of modern masculinity.
He also does a fine job with the rest of the cast. Tony Danza is a hoot as Jon Sr., an old school guy for whom the above discussion would make no sense. Johannson and Moore take on characters more complex than they initially appear, and it is to their credit that they were willing to take the time to let their characters fully develop. Glenne Headly handles the role of Jon’s mother, likewise clueless about what his life is actually like but eager to see her son settle down. We get the sense that her life journey has been a bit more complicated as well.
“Don Jon” plays like a romantic comedy but goes off in unexpected directions and doesn’t come back to safe territory. Viewers willing to hang on for the ride will find it engaging and provocative, and be eager to see what Gordon-Levitt does next whether he is working behind the camera or just in front of it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.