Don Jon: Love, Lust and Loneliness

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's debut as writer-director is glib and fun—and even better when Julianne Moore is onscreen

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Daniel McFadden / Relativity Media

There tends to be some eye rolling—at least, within the movie industry’s insiders-and-hangers-on brigade (of which we film critics are a grumbly constituency)—when there’s word of an actor who nurses dreams of being a director. That’s mainly because the assumption is that he or she will want to be terribly serious, taking a sort of retaliatory jab at whatever crap roles they’ve been roped into playing in the past. For instance, if you are Angelina Jolie, how better to excise the memory of playing a platinum-haired news bunny in Life or Something Like It than writing and directing the solemn Bosnian war film In the Land of Blood and Honey?

But no one could accuse Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as writer-director in the comedy Don Jon as being self-aggrandizing. At least 80% of it is snappy, droll fluff, while the other 20% is what you get when you persuade Julianne Moore to be in your movie: in a word, better. Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, an iron-pumping, churchgoing New Jersey boy with an unabashed love of pornography. He likes real girls too, but sex with them is never quite as fulfilling as watching sex on his laptop while pleasuring himself. Ideally, he gets in and gets out with the real girls and then gets online with his true loves.

I will not detail all the reasons why this is the case for Jon, but it has something to do with three-dimensional women wanting to look into his eyes—missionary is the worst!—and their irritating habit of interrupting the act to speak of things that are not compliments related to size or speed. Also, he is an excessively tidy fellow, and tissues go more easily into the wastebasket than dates. He needs real women, though, if only to impress his “boys,” Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke). Then, one night at a club, he meets what he calls a “dime,” Barbara (Scarlett Johansson, spot-on in her Jersey everything). She’s stunning, sassy and a bit standoffish, which turns Jon into a puddle glistening with hair oil.

(MORE: Q&A with Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

To Jon, Barbara oozes sex and what looks like serious class—Johansson makes Jersey Shore–tacky look like couture—but she doesn’t put out. Which drives Jon crazy. It even seduces him into pursuing something that could very nearly be called a relationship. He can’t have her unless he betters himself, which includes signing up for night school. Johansson is first-rate at treading the line between needy kitten and demanding shrew. I’ve never seen her have quite this much fun on a movie screen. Maybe she was just in the mood for a comedy, or maybe Gordon-Levitt drew something out of her—who knows?

And whatever Gordon-Levitt’s directorial instructions were to Tony Danza, who plays Jon’s boorish father, they were right on. Danza plays a cartoon, but he’s never been less of a cartoon, and you see the origins of Jon the Don in the way his dad eyes Barbara at a family dinner and regards his boy with new respect, as if he’d just sold his startup for $100 million.

I was never angered by the movie’s title character—he’s just too ignorant to dislike, and Gordon-Levitt, even in lout mode, has a sly cuteness that can’t be squashed, especially when he’s revealing to us how young and unformed Jon really is—but I didn’t particularly care about him. That’s why, despite all the glib and amusing dialogue and flashy, funny cuts of Jon going about his various bits of business, the movie needs an intervention.

It gets one in the form of Moore’s character, Esther, a fellow night-school student who mortifies him in class by asking if he’s watching porn on his phone. Her characterization of the forthright but also damaged Esther is subtle, but the payoff is vivid. In their subsequent if cautious friendship is a hint of Harold and Maude. It’s implausible and seems to come out of left field—a movie in another genre entirely—but the sentiment involved is lovely. Whether the pastiche is deliberate or a young storyteller’s desperate grasp at a narrative arc of redemption, it gives Don Jon an entirely welcome and unexpectedly heartfelt ending.

MORE: Q&A with Julianne Moore