Rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use.
Running time: 90 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns the gym-tan-laundry routine into an art form with “Don Jon,” his vibrant and viciously profane directorial debut.
Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote the script, stars as the title character: a Lothario who learns how to love. But for real, you know what I’m saying? His “Don” Jon Martello clearly was inspired by and could be friends with The Situation and the rest of the boys from “Jersey Shore,” with the pecs and the abs, the gold chain and the wife-beater tank top, the muscle car and the Sunday Mass and — most importantly of all — the super-smooth way with women. But not just any women; as dictated by the highly scientific (and crass) methodology he and his club-hopping pals employ, they must be at least an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. Ideally, they’re what Jon calls “a dime.”
He sounds like a horrible human being, obsessed as he is with looks and cleanliness and perfection., analyzing everything numerically in hopes of maintaining a sense of control. And he might have been insufferably self-centered in the hands of any other actor — but Gordon-Levitt’s innate charm can’t help but shine through. He’s just so damned likable, no matter what. Aside from “Hesher,” in which he starred as a tatted, long-haired squatter who leads a lonely kid down a road of debauchery, he’s never played a truly bad guy. And because there are some nuggets of his decency and vulnerability scattered throughout the script, he’s not a complete caricature, and his character’s ultimate redemption doesn’t seem like such a longshot.
But first: Internet porn. Lots and lots of Internet porn.
Despite the fact that Jon can bring home a gorgeous woman any night of the week, he finds his true sexual fulfillment through brief snippets from the privacy of his own laptop. The overflow of objectification is numbing, as it is meant to be. The sequencing in these segments is beautifully fluid, with a rhythm that Gordon-Levitt repeats throughout the film. Sometimes he even sneaks off in the middle of the night while his latest conquest is snoozing in his bed, just to rub one out to images of naughty schoolgirls in the darkness of his living room.
Then one night at the club, he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who’s a dime and change if ever there was one. But Barbara is also a good girl. Not only will she not give it up on the first night, she wants to go on actual dates — the romantic comedies she forces him to endure are a scream — and meet each other’s friends and family.
This brings us to Jon’s blue-collar childhood home in suburban New Jersey, where the DNA is powerfully on display. Jon’s dad (an awesomely foul-mouthed Tony Danza) yells at football games on the TV, which is just as much of an obsession as porn is to his son. (They also clearly share the same taste in clothes, amusingly.) Mom (Glenne Headly as the stereotypically doting Italian mama) is preoccupied with finding Jon a nice girl to settle down with and start a family. And younger sister Monica (Brie Larson) remains mute regardless of the situation, glued as she is to her smartphone. (The hugely versatile Larson, ever-present these days, does a lot with just the slightest facial expression.)
Barbara seems perfect to Jon, making him the envy of all his friends. But to the audience, it’s obvious that she’s demanding, high-maintenance and materialistic. She might mean well in the ways she tries to shape him, and her fairy-tale notions of romance surely seem pure in her own eyes — but we know they’re doomed. In theory, the character might have been a one-dimensional shrew with the French manicure and the pink lip gloss and the husky New York accent, but Johansson finds some shadings of sweetness and humanity to her.
One of the changes Barbara insists upon is that Jon return to night school to finish his degree, rather than just tending bar. There, he meets the other woman who will influence him: an older fellow student named Esther (Julianne Moore), who’s in a constant state of despondency. The relationship they forge seems unlikely on paper, but each sees what he or she needs in the other in that exact moment. Totally unsurprisingly, Moore brings a natural radiance and mature groundedness to the picture. Plus, it’s clever little moment when the star of “Boogie Nights” hands Jon a DVD of Danish porn from the ’70s.
“Don Jon” is about the ways we’re preoccupied with image — our own and everyone else’s — but it’s also about instant gratification. When Jon wants to get off quickly, he turns on his laptop rather than turning on an actual human being. When he’s late for Mass (and he’s late every week), this good Catholic boy spews a stream of road-rage-fueled profanity from behind the wheel.
It’s only when he learns to slow down the routine he’s perfected that he begins to enjoy the pleasure of patience.