Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Brie Larson, Tony Danza
Rated: R, for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use
Runtime: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Bottom line: Genuine, hilarious adult comedy
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is on a remarkable streak.
For nearly a decade now, he has mixed supporting roles in blockbuster movies like “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Looper” with starring roles in smaller productions like “(500) Days of Summer” and “50/50,” and he consistently offers memorable performances.
The former child actor is not only a bona fide movie star but also an actor who commands tremendous respect from his peers.
With “Don Jon,” Gordon-Levitt now becomes a filmmaker to be taken seriously, too. Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed and stars in this outrageously funny and surprisingly moving comedy.
As an actor, Gordon-Levitt plays completely against type. He constructs a character straight out of the reality show Jersey Shore — a vain, vacuous “guido” whose mother named him Jon, but whose friends call him the Don because he never fails to score a one-night stand.
During the opening sequence, Jon lists the things he cares about most: his body, his ride, his crib, his boys and most of all — his porn.
Jon explains that sex with real women is fine, but he prefers the porn experience. Real women never do the things porn stars do, and pornographic sex looks much better than real sex. Most importantly, Jon “loses himself” in porn in a way he never does during real sex.
Jon doesn’t recognize it yet, but he is addicted to porn.
“Don Jon” has a lot of fun during the first act with just how ridiculous Jon’s lifestyle and beliefs are, but it also establishes a thematic opposition between genuine intimacy with another person versus solitary physical pleasure.
Since the pornography industry, boosted by the Internet, has generated at least $10 billion for nearly a decade now, “Don Jon” good-naturedly addresses what must be a problem for many people.
Things begin to change for Jon, though, when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a beautiful, willful Jersey girl. What begins as a pickup becomes Jon’s first time falling in love.
Jon is motivated to make an earnest attempt to give up porn. He enrolls in a night class, and Barbara won’t have sex with Jon until they meet each other’s families.
Jon’s family is a treat, by the way. Glenn Headly and Tony Danza play Jon’s stereotypically East Coast Italian-American parents. The stereotypes are rather worn out, but the actors play them wonderfully.
“Don Jon” slowly peels back the layers of both Jon and Barbara, and neither are who they initially seem to be.
The plot hinges on a handful of brilliantly written and acted scenes. Viewers might be divided over how well the film works as a whole, but a few scenes are undeniably as unique, surprising and uproarious as anything we’ll see this year.
There is also ample eye candy for those of any sexual persuasion. Gordon-Levitt bulked up for the role, and he and Johansson absolutely sizzle.
And speaking of sexual images ... This may be obvious, but it would be irresponsible for me not to point out that anyone who is offended by the mere idea of pornography should not see “Don Jon.”
The movie never condones Jon’s lifestyle, and the glimpses of porn the movie provides are definitely not sexy. The filmmakers definitely take the appropriate position on pornography. But this story can’t be told without showing the source of Jon’s addiction to some degree.
Crucially, though, the movie doesn’t condemn Jon as a person. From a storytelling perspective, one of the most important things Gordon-Levitt does is avoid judging the character.
We come to understand why Jon is drawn to the emotionally safe, instant gratification of pornography, and eventually one of his night school classmates, Esther (Julianne Moore), will help him understand it, too.
The final act of the movie becomes surprisingly sweet without ever being cloying or saccharin.
“Don Jon” is a great directorial debut for Gordon-Levitt and an edgy, relevant comedy with a unique voice.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.