Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s passion for film is admirable. Since emerging from his teenage years on the great sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun he has starred in a myriad of independent films (Brick, The Lookout, Hesher) and blockbusters (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper.) His collaborative production company HitRecord lets aspiring artists connect and build their futures together. Now JGL is trying his hand at screenwriting/producing/directing with Don Jon. It’s a shame he didn’t have a lot to prepare him for such a daunting task. Kidding…
Don Jon’s conceit is simple. JGL plays Jon, a New Jersey meat-head who lives for two things: scoring chicks and watching porn. He works as a bartender and uses his power to get his douchebag buddies (Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke) in as his wingmen. Jon likes having sex but has one problem with it: sex with real women is nothing like his porn. In fact it’s so unlike it that Jon usually gets a viewing session or two in on the couch postcoitus. Ol’ Jonny sees no problem with his lifestyle because every Sunday he repents at the family Catholic Church; usually leaving with 10-20 Hail Mary’s and Lord’s Prayers to say during his workouts the coming week. Jon measures his level of sin by how many the priest assigns him each week…a nice measuring stick indeed (pun intended.)
One special evening at the club Jon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) – a dime in his eyes (10/10.) She immediately wins his heart, becoming seemingly the first woman that he’s ever pursued beyond one night. Barbara begins to assimilate into every inch of Jon’s life, even attending his weekly family dinners. Jon’s parents definitely approve – especially his father (played with amazing verve by Tony Danza.) Barbara even gets Jon to go to night school and pursue something beyond his low-level bartending gig. Unfortunately Jon thinks it’s all roses…until Barbara catches him doing the one thing he loves most in the world. Suffice it to say she doesn’t love it as much.
If this sounds like racy material, that’s because it is (apparently the NC-17 cut is significantly racier…the R version is just fine.) Gordon-Levitt does a great job constructing the foundation of a biting satire of 21st century chauvinism. In fact, at times it is a major middle finger to twentysomething douchebag culture that’s been proliferated by casino online (among many other things) MTV, men’s magazines and the now unlimited access to free online porn. Unfortunately he slightly undercuts his own referendum because JGL clearly has a little Spielberg in his blood and can’t help but pull his punches massively in the third-act. Jon is given a MAJOR get out of jail free of my sins card (in the form of the angelic Julianne Moore) that framed the finale a little too rosy for me. It’s not that Jon doesn’t deserve redemption it’s just wildly convenient.
Luckily JGL’s standing in Hollywood gave him the opportunity to work with an impressive cast. As the star Gordon-Levitt bulked up his slight frame, slicked back his hair and donned a great “The Situation” – style Jersey accent. His swagger is perfect for the role and his energy carries nearly every frame. Scarlett Johansson also gets to grunge up her usually glamorous persona to great effect. Her accent borders on cartoon-level at times but the heightened reality of the film lets it shine. The great standouts however come in the cameos, including Jon’s parent’s, played by Tony Danza and Glenne Headly. They are borderline revelations in the weekly dinner scenes that crack with great banter. I’m not sure what Danza has been doing these last few years but his hardened Jersey persona is hysterical.
Don Jon is a worthy debut by Gordon-Levitt. His direction is energetic, if not slightly too reliant on basic indie-film tropes. His writing also has some bite. Don Jon has a great sense of humor and the actors clearly loved delivering the dialogue. If he wasn’t such a softy the film had classic potential but alas that was not to be. Still, for Hollywood to have a young talent like him gives me hope for the future of the industry. Gordon-Levitt will grow as a writer/director and if he continues taking chances like Don Jon he may one day make his masterpiece.