Joseph Gordon-Levitt confounds expectations – in a good way. He survived being a child star on a hit TV comedy, which alone is an accomplishment. Instead of ending up in rehab afterward, he went to Columbia University for a couple of years before returning to acting. He could have tried television again, but instead he carved out a career in indy films such as Mysterious Skin, Brick, (500) Days of Summer and The Lookout, an excellent film where he played a brain-damaged bank janitor who gets caught up in a robbery. That film brought him to the attention of Christopher Nolan who cast him in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, which led to his star turn in the fascinating Looper last year. He also held his own with another hyphenate, Daniel Day-Lewis, in Lincoln. He founded with his brother a web-based open production company, HitRECord, and is now pursuing passion projects like his first movie as writer and director, Don Jon.
Given his career thus far, it isn’t surprising that he’d make a deft romantic comedy about pornography and the objectification of both women and men in our society today. Also given his past history, it’s not surprising that he pulls it off beautifully.
Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) is given the honorific Don by his two buddies, Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke), acknowledging his leadership of their group. They spend their weekends cruising for girls in bars in the New Jersey town where they live. Jon is the master of the pickup and the one-night stand, but the sex isn’t as satisfying as his fantasy world when he watches porno on his computer. He’ll leave his conquest in bed and go into the other room to satisfy himself by watching clips on-line.
In addition to his conquests, Jon’s world is well-ordered in a constrained way. He has his apartment, which he keeps spotless, and he drives a 70’s Chevy muscle car with typical New Jersey aggressiveness. He spends time with his parents (Glenne Headley and Tony Danza) and his sister (Brie Larson), attends church and confession each week, and works out in the gym, doing his penance for his sins in between his reps.
When he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he tries his usual plays and gets shot down. This just makes him more obsessed with her, leading him to start playing the game by her rules. Barbara is as obsessed with fantasy as Jon, only hers are big-budget Hollywood romantic comedies. (There’s a beautiful deconstruction of the Hollywood Rom-Com in the movie, featuring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum in cameo roles.) As much as he sees her as an object of desire, she sees him as an object to dominate. But when he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman attending an adult ed class Jon’s taking at Barbara’s insistence, reality starts breaking into Jon’s fantasies.
As a filmmaker, Gordon-Levitt keeps the feel of his independent film roots, but polishes the work to a studio sheen. He includes fairly chaste clips from porno films, presented in dizzying montages, but he also isolates how that world has infiltrated all aspects of culture. The most overwhelming scene of pornography is actually a full-length Hardees commercial. Kudos to editor Lauren Zuckerman for her outstanding work, especially with those sequences. Gordon-Levitt has said he was inspired to write the film while working on (500) Days of Summer when he realized Tom, his character in the film, was just as objectified as Zooey Deschanel’s Summer.
It’s slightly ironic that Scarlet Johansson was just named “Sexiest Woman Alive” by Esquire Magazine, another example of the theme of Don Jon. She is more of a collaborator than co-star with Gordon-Levitt, for she matches his performance note for note. A revelation is Tony Danza, delivering the best performance of his career as Jon Sr. He and Gordon-Levitt had worked together 19 years ago on the Disney remake of Angels in the Outfield, and there is a definite chemistry between the actors. You believe they could be father and son. Julianne Moore had performed in another movie that dealt in a very different way with pornography – Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights – but here she’s convincing as the antidote for that fantasy world.
On top of the excellent script and first-rate direction, Gordon-Levitt delivers a dead-on performance as a Jersey boy – the attitude, the strut, the accent; it’s all there. It’s especially impressive when you know that Gordon-Levitt is a native-born Californian.
After a summer of sequels and high-budget explosions, the originality and humanity of Don Jon is a true tonic.