Considering that the hero’s journey in “Don Jon” basically involves a New Jersey knucklehead figuring out that there’s more to sex than pornography, it’s remarkable how enjoyable it is for much of its running time.
In his writing/directing/starring debut, Joseph Gordon-Levitt eventually runs into trouble when he decides to get serious. For the most part, though, when he sticks to light social satire, this is smart, stylish, fast-paced and funny stuff. It’s also, of course, no-holds-barred raunchy from the moment it begins.
Gordon-Levitt, who has displayed impressive range in his acting career (equally good as a brooding teenage private detective in 2005’s “Brick” and as a cancer patient suddenly confronting mortality in the 2011 comedy-drama “50/50”), goes even farther afield here. His Jon is a New Jersey mook of the type familiar from reality TV’s “Jersey Shore,” particularly that show’s Michael Sorrentino, a.k.a. The Situation.
Jon, nicknamed Don Jon by his friends for his ability to pick up girls, is a lady’s man with pumped up muscles, greased-back hair and no desire whatsoever for female companionship outside of bed. And very little in bed, as it turns out. Jon’s an affable, introspection-free sort who’s primarily devoted to his bod, his bachelor pad, his muscle car, his family, his church, his friends and his porn — with a particular emphasis on that last item. His life is a routine of hitting the gym, dining with his family (Tony Danza as his dad displays his own addiction to big-screen-TV football), screaming at annoying drivers in traffic, bedding the best-looking girls at nightclubs, then confessing his sins at church.
Clearly, Jon has cultivated a sizeable addiction to porn (the mere sound of his laptop booting up causes a Pavlovian reaction), but his real problem is that he quite honestly prefers it to the real thing. No matter how beautiful the girls are that he brings home and no matter how spirited their coupling, he always finds it an empty experience compared to his ability “to lose myself” in pornography.
He knows that’s not a good thing and decides to that what he needs is a deeper relationship. But unfortunately, he decides to seek true love with a more elusive nightclub target, one he and his friends have identified as a perfect 10 and who seems to embody his pornographic ideal, the bodacious, maddeningly flirtatious, sexually manipulative Barbara (Scarlett Johansson).
At first, Jon and Barbara seem to have been made for each other in New Jersey heaven and it’s a delight to see her playing him like a hooked fish once he commits to “the long game” to coax her into bed. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that Barbara has a pernicious streak and a definite agenda, exerting more and more control over him with the promise of sex that “means somethin’.”
One of the changes she insists on sends Jon to business school at night, where he meets an older woman named Esther (Julianne Moore), who’s amused when she catches him watching a sex video on his smart phone. And it’s the introduction of her character, representing maturity, humanity and sexual reality, ironically, that causes “Don Jon,” for the first time, to ring false.
It’s obvious that Gordon-Levitt, after priming the audience with non-stop superficiality and titillation, wants to take Jon to a deeper place, as he learns about love and loss from Esther, but the sudden shift in tone is a little hard to take — even a little confusing for some, apparently. The audience I saw it with, so accustomed to laughing at the film’s earlier outrageousness, responded to a scene in which Esther sobbed uncontrollably over a recently suffered tragedy by laughing out loud.
Gordon-Levitt manages to present Jon’s sudden enlightenment capably, but that’s not the same as being convincing. It’s going to take a lot more than a few lessons in intimacy and sensuality from an older woman to make this guy put away his hair gel and turn off his laptop.