‘Don Jon’ finds Joseph Gordon-Levitt in director’s chair

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson star in 'Don Jon,' written and directed by Gordon-Levitt — Photo courtesy of Daniel McFadden / Relativity Media
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson star in ‘Don Jon,’ written and directed by Gordon-Levitt — Photo courtesy of Daniel McFadden / Relativity Media

Don Jon, an exploration of modern-day obsessions, is the first time celebrated actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes a seat in the director’s chair for a feature film. The resulting movie is funny and at times poignant, although it feels trapped by its own perceived cleverness.

Gordon-Levitt stars as the title character, real name Joe Martello, an Italian-American living in the Jersey Shore mentality. Much umbrage can be taken with the stereotypes willingly employed in the film against New Jerseyans and Italian-Americans.

Tony Danza plays Jon’s father, a man who orders his wife (Glenne Headly) around and expects a hot dinner on the table. His sister (Brie Larson) sits quietly, engrossed in her own world.

Joe, a man in love with his good looks, cares about several things in life: his apartment, his workouts, his car and his Internet pornography. It’s safe to say that he’s addicted to the entire lifestyle that comes with this unseemly combination. Clubbing, slicked-back hair, shiny cars — he loves it all.

In the love department, Joe is unable to find a meaningful relationship with the many women he brings home, so he gets lost in the naughty world of the Internet, constantly logging on to live out his fantasies.

Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who he meets at a club, is the one woman who may turn things around. She’s not like the other ladies he brings home. If this is going to work for her, she needs Jon to commit for the long haul. She expects romance and stableness, and she certainly won’t tolerate Jon’s computer habits.

The film, which runs a quick 90 minutes, is a journey to see if Jon can understand his addiction and then give it up for the girl he would like to marry. Along the way, he meets Esther (Julianne Moore) at a college class; she’s a woman who takes an interest in Jon’s predicament and attempts to teach him a few rules about dating and sex.

Don Jon, because of its subject matter, could have been a typical R-rated comedy. And certainly there are times when Gordon-Levitt, who wrote the script, takes the easy way out with some one-liners. However, the film as a whole tries to see the underlying reasons for society’s obsessions. Why is Jon more interested in intercourse and not conversation? Why is Jon addicted to chiseling his body at the local gym? Can his parents provide a window into what makes this man tick? Interesting questions, but there are few answers supplied. The movie cannot achieve its lofty goals, and the blame needs to rest with the over-the-top characterizations.

It would have been more effective if Jon was a real person. He’s so stereotypical and so obsessed with his addictions that Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal feels too much like an episode of Jersey Shore or any other so-called reality show. From the accent to the muscle tone to the harsh father to the submissive mother, it’s difficult to buy into this family. Don Jon presents a three-dimensional storyline but relies on two-dimensional characters.

The only break from the usualness is Moore’s Esther character, and that becomes clear from the first few minutes she’s on screen. Esther is a living, breathing woman, a person with pain, hurt and a means to pass on the lessons she’s learned. In some ways, she rescues the film from its own self-indulgence, and perhaps that was a conscious decision on Gordon-Levitt’s part. Esther is that wakeup call for him, that way of him understanding what’s wrong with his life. But there’s too much time spent with the old Jon, so caring about the building of a new Jon becomes a trying affair.

Don Jon has the salacious elements, to be sure. But it’s heart is in the right place. This is not gratuitous; it’s meant to be therapeutic, a way for today’s society to look at itself in the mirror and realize why so much is tied to consumerism, traditional gender roles, subjugation and me, me, me. Don Jon needs to be applauded for attempting to address some of these problems, but it undoubtedly fails in its goals.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Don Jon

  • 2013

  • Written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

  • Starring Gordon-Levitt, Julianne Moore, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly and Brie Larson

  • Running time: 91 minutes

  • Rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use

  • Rating: ★★½☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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