Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows great promise as a director and growth as an actor in the funny, high-energy and sexually frank “Don Jon.”
Gordon-Levitt makes his feature directing and screenwriting debuts and stars as Jon, a New Jersey bartender in need of literal and virtual virus protection. After bedding women he’s just met at a club, Jon completes his evenings by opening his laptop to watch online porn.
Unafraid of hair gel or wearing an undershirt as just a shirt, Jon drives a muscle car that complements his own muscles. The character is not quite cartoonish — or full-on “Jersey Shore” — but he’s a few degrees removed from realistic.
Playing a comically heightened character seems to free Gordon-Levitt. Though always charismatic, he often has exhibited a self-consciousness on screen. Up through 2010’s “Inception,” there was a piece of each performance that seemed aware it was a performance.
The self-consciousness had lessened to almost nil by last year’s “Looper.” But never before has Gordon-Levitt disappeared into character as he does here.
His eyes radiating little except lust and youthful ignorance, Gordon-Levitt draws laughs through his full commitment to a character who is out to lunch about life but thinks he has it figured out.
Online porn, in Jon’s eyes, is not so much an addiction as a necessity; the women he meets at the club rarely do what he wants in bed. And he’s not going to demand things of women he has just met — he’s insensitive but not a complete creep. Plus he knows there are women available online to fulfill every fantasy, 24 hours a day.
Sexual imagery — live and online — abounds in “Don Jon,” but it’s often presented in heavily edited snippets. This treatment keeps the R-rated film from veering into pornography itself and also fits into Gordon-Levitt’s highly stylized approach to the larger story.
Gordon-Levitt uses quick cuts and repetition, accompanied by heavy-bass beats, to bring home his points. Jon’s weekly routine includes picking up women, watching online porn, going to church to confess and spending Sunday dinners with his boorish dad (Tony Danza), doting but demanding mom (Glenne Headly) and silent sister (Brie Larson). Then he does it all again.
Before it becomes tiresome, director Gordon-Levitt’s repetition of Jon’s weekly activities produces laughs by highlighting Jon’s consistently brazen behavior. It also illuminates the deadening, distraction-filled nature of this young man’s life. No wonder he dehumanizes women.
But two women (Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore) enter Jon’s life and refuse to let him view them as objects. This leads the über-confident ladies’ man to stumble and Gordon-Levitt to display some welcome vulnerability.
Johansson plays Barbara, whom Jon first spots in the club. He assesses her to be the ultimate – a 10, or a “dime.” Actual girlfriend material.
Barbara, given a thick Jersey accent and supreme self confidence by Johansson, leads Jon by the nose. Johansson is not especially deft in delivering comic lines, but she’s a great conduit for comedy. She turns Barbara’s sexual-negotiation tactics with Jon into crude comic poetry.
Barbara does not go home with Jon that first night, which immediately puts her in the power position. The simple creature with whom she is bargaining becomes so unbalanced by the tables being turned that he does anything she asks, including enrolling in night school to improve himself.
Gordon-Levitt does his best acting opposite Moore, who plays Esther, a night-school classmate. Prone to bursts of crying (Moore cries like a champ, as always), Esther attempts to confide in — of all people — Jon.
Gordon-Levitt looks befuddled when Esther first tries to befriend Jon. This hippie-ish woman exists outside Jon’s previous frame of reference. She’s his mother’s age but not his mother, and far afield from the young women he views as sexually attractive. Jon is stunned by Esther’s insistence that he treat her as a person.
Jon matures during “Don Jon,” and the film turns more serious. Yet filmmaker Gordon-Levitt never fully confronts Jon’s porn addiction.
Something larger than sexual gratification sends Jon back to the online well so often. But “Don” ultimately treats his clear addiction as a phase.
Perhaps it’s a rookie filmmaker mistake — not knowing that addiction presented in a comic context should be balanced by the character doing real work to battle that addiction. This omission does not rob “Don” of its humor, but it does make some of that humor feel empty in hindsight.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB