I've been following Joseph Gordon-Levitt's career like a hawk for nearly 20 yearsever since he broke my heart in Disney's Angels in the Outfield. Most child actors turn to drugs, shaved heads, puffy faces and suicide, but this guy made a smooth transition. I like him because he makes good, non-obvious choices. (In particular, check out 2007's The Lookout and 2004's Mysterious Skin.) Now, at the tender and infuriating age of 32, he's written, directed and starred in his first feature film, and big surprise, it's mostly great.
Don Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a sex-obsessed New Jersey delivery driver who lists off his life priorities in what is, at first, a startling Jersey accent. They are: His apartment, his car, his family, the church (Catholic), his friends, his women and porn. He and his buddies go out to clubs where they rate broads on a scale of 1 to 10. It's gross, but in the words of Lil Jon, "If you ain't come to party get the fuck out the club."
Jon soon becomes enamored with Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson. I'm of the controversial opinion that Johansson is not a particularly good actress, and definitely not very funny, but she does a fine job here. Hot women should play hot women; it's good casting. Barbara's expectations for relationships come from romantic comedies and fairy tales. She makes Jon wait a month before they have sex, and then it's all "no porn allowed" and "you have to take a night class at the local community college to better yourself." He goes to the class dutifully for the rest of the film, which helps to open up the plot and all, but they never say what the course is, and I hated that.
These characters are the embodiments of New Jersey, Italian American culture. Jon's mother (Glenne Headly) wants nothing more than for her son to find a pretty girl, settle down and make babies. His father (Tony Danza) wears muscle shirts and screams at the television watching football, then at his son, then back at the television. He has a sister (Brie Larson) who is texting for every second she's on screen, with one profound exception. It sounds clichéd, and it is, but the actors really seem to mean it.
This is a curious movie. In many ways it's pat and expected. The repetition in the film both works and becomes obvious and predictable. There's dinner with his family every Sunday and the bored sister. And, every time, he breaks his resolve and goes back to porn. Week after week, he confesses his sins and recites his Hail Marys out loud while doing reps at the gym. We see him road rage in his car again and again, and it's perfectly proportional to the slings and arrows his character is facing with his search to find meaning in sex.
Julianne Moore shows up around the halfway point at whatever-the-hell night class they're both attending. It's hard to show two people meeting and developing a relationship onscreen with any authenticity. In reality, friendships come slowly or in weird spurts, but in films there's no time for that. Instead, characters are usually thrown together in an absurd contrivance and then immediately get coffee or change out of wet clothes since they just fell into a river together or something. Not so here. Moore's character is damaged, weird and wise. She arrives, takes the movie by the hand and leads it to its conclusion, which is a kind of spiritual awakening.
Oh, and never mind the last two minutes of the film. It's just telling us what we were already painting in our heads. In that case, I wish Gordon-Levitt had trusted his audience more and practiced a little restraint.
Don Jon continues at the Carmike 12.