Don Jon isn’t as good as it should be

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s feature-length directorial debut Don Jon hits theatres.


Don Jon

There’s something unquestionably ballsy (no pun intended… or maybe not) about Joseph Gordon-Levitt writing and directing a movie that’s mostly about him masturbating; in terms of pre-emptively deflecting criticism, you can’t get much more blatant. Like a lot of filmmaking debuts by actors, Don Jon is unquestionably JGL’s show; he’s in every scene (and almost every shot), and the film seems written to showcase his specific set of skills (sometimes to the detriment of the other characters). That Don Jon is ostensibly about a self-obsessed, self-pleasuring manchild only clouds the waters further; it’s almost as if JGL both revels in and rejects the self-serving nature of the film in order to find an objective point of view, which is probably too much to hang on what’s an otherwise genial and pleasant comedy.

Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a Jersey bro with few preoccupations: his car, his apartment, his friends, his family, his bartending job, getting laid and watching porn (which he greatly prefers to the real thing). When he meets a 10/10 Jersey princess named Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) who wants to meet his family and friends before sleeping together, Jon agrees to let old habits die and commit himself fully to the relationship… almost. Jon can’t seem to shake the porn habit — perhaps not coincidentally the only thing that Barbara truly asked him to give up — that lets him escape and fantasize about all the things Barbara won’t do to him. A burgeoning friendship with an older woman in his night class (Julianne Moore) only complicates things as Jon attempts to come to terms with his porn habit.

In attempting to put forth a more measured portrait of a certain type of Italian-American New Jersey lifestyle that’s been rather vilified since Jersey Shore, Gordon-Levitt sometimes winds up giving the short shrift to supporting characters and painting them in broader strokes than necessary. While Tony Danza is surprisingly hilarious as Jon’s irritable father, the majority of supporting female characters can essentially be boiled down to a single overarching trait (his sister texts, his mother worries, his girlfriend nags). It works in the sense that the film is about Jon getting rid of his childish and antiquated notions of what women mean to him, but it removes a lot of the nuance necessary for that point to hit home. It’s not dissimilar in a lot of ways to a Judd Apatow production, but the film’s trim 90-minute runtime eliminates a lot of the character “glue” that makes those films feel so lived-in.

And while Don Jon doesn’t bring much more to the coming-of-age, leaving-childish-things-behind subgenre of comedy, it’s more successful in approaching the role of pornography in modern society. The deftest trick Gordon-Levitt pulls is certainly how he manages to humanize a growing problem without making the film into a total boner jam or dour, Shame-like psychodrama and resisting pat resolutions or demonizing. Don Jon is about addiction and routine more than it’s about the gym, tanning and laundry, but the latter still seems like a crutch.

Gordon-Levitt proves to be a slick visual stylist and adept at drawing out small moments from a stacked and talented cast (which also includes Glenne Headley, Brie Larson and Rob Brown), but his grip on the bigger picture is looser. His knack for sight gags is undone by his propensity for heavy-handed imagery, and, for all of the film’s attempts at humanizing its larger-than-life characters, they still come across as mildly worthy of our scorn. Don Jon is both a highly ambitious and fairly unassuming debut from Gordon-Levitt, always interesting but never quite as satisfying as it should be. ■

Don Jon opens today

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