It seems like a natural transition for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to take a step behind the camera and write and direct a feature film. He’s directed shorts in the past, but with Don Jon he finally makes the foray into feature-length movies. It’s not exactly a great picture, but there’s enough proficiency here that I can see Gordon-Levitt getting a second chance at a feature film.
The problem here is that the film is far too formulaic to be a complete knockout. As soon as a character is introduced or a scene begins, you can see the exact road Don Jon is going to take. This isn’t helped by its repetitive nature, either, although that’s at least by design. The lead character has a routine that he likes to stick to, and no matter what’s going on around him, he’s going to try to keep to it. And, sure, I suppose there’s some truth in that, and the film has a lot of heart and truth to it, but when you know exactly where it’s going, that predictability hurts the film when it comes to the drama.
Don Jon also stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the stud of a man, Jon Martello, who spends his nights effortlessly picking up ladies at the club. In his spare time, he cleans his apartment, drives his car, hangs out with his friends, works out at the gym, goes to church, has Sunday brunch with his family, and watches porn. These are the important things in his life, especially that last one. Yes, Jon is addicted to pornography, even going so far as to tell us — three times, no less — that he finds it better than sex with a real woman. I won’t go into why.
He has no plans to find himself a woman, and no plans to stop watching porn. One night, at the club, he lays eyes on a Perfect 10, a “dime,” as the Jersey boys call her, a woman named Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson). She doesn’t fall for his normal tactics, although before you know it they’re going out. She catches him watching his internet videos, tells him it’s either them or her, and then he “stops,” although in reality he just hides it. Meanwhile, she tries to alter the routine he’s built for himself, which essentially amounts taking a night class so that he can stop working as a bartender. Oh, and Barbara is materialistic, but only when the film calls for it.
Things move along briskly and while there’s a lot of repetition to the proceedings, it’s not terribly dull. For the middle portion of Don Jon, we basically watch the relationship between our lead and his beau go from good to perfect to … take a guess. All while hiding his addiction. He even watches porn at night school, which draws the eye of an older, yet more free-spirited woman, Esther (Julianne Moore).
Replace porn with heroin and we’ve got a more depressing film, but apparently it’s okay to laugh at what’s essentially a mental illness if it’s something that doesn’t cause physical damage to the body. Don Jon is a comedy, and it has a few strong moments of laughter, but how funny can this concept really be? We know the porn addiction is eventually going to come between Jon and Barbara, and is ruining lives supposed to be an inherently funny thing? Because that’s the way the film treats it.
It also doesn’t take the addiction seriously, and sees it as far easier to fix than any addiction actually is. That doesn’t help the dramatic moments, which get thrown in here and there, and it leads to an unsatisfying emotional conclusion. When the film doesn’t treat anything seriously, and it’s as predictable as they come, why should we care? We know how it’s going to end, and it’s tough to put any of ourselves into the experience when this is the case.
Add in a stereotypical Italian-Catholic family — Tony Danza is having fun as the loudmouth father, Glenne Headly is the concerned mother, Brie Larson stares at her cell phone for all but one scene — and a tone that’s one-note and not particularly deep, and you’ve got a movie that’s really not worth seeing. I mean, the whole lesson is one we’ve leaned before: Love conquers all, and in this case, “all” includes an addition to pornography and unsatisfactory sex.
At least the acting is good, but considering everyone but Gordon-Levitt is playing a stereotype — Johansson plays up the accent and sass as the beautiful Joisey Girl, Moore is a hippie who never truly grew out of that phase, Headly Danza and Larson are a family straight out of a sitcom — their efforts are at least partially going to waste. Gordon-Levitt, on the other hand, gives his character a confidence, a unique voice, and a swagger which benefits from his charms. He reminds us how good an actor he is in this film. His directorial debut can’t live up.
Don Jon is a film that’s tough to watch not because of its subject matter, but because you’ll feel like you’ve seen it before. It’s predictable from start to finish, and apart from some moments of sensory-overload editing, the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt does nothing new. It has better acting than the stereotypical roles deserve, but it doesn’t treat anything seriously enough to be worth committing to, and while it’s not terrible, it’s too routine to seek out. It’s functionally formulaic.