Don Jon centers on its titular protagonist, Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Jersey boy who is all about his pad, his car, his body, his family, his boys – his girls – his church… and his porn. With a life metered out by one-night stands and a lot of pornography, Jon seems content – that is, until he meets The One.
Her name is Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), and in Jon’s book she is a certified “dime.” Only thing is, Barbara’s a traditional Italian catholic girl, raised on romance movie expectations of courtship (a.k.a. no sex, just dating). With a unique challenge in front of him, Jon must re-evaluate his personal values, and question whether his metered life and porn obsession are signs of something deeper that needs correcting.
The brainchild of writer/director/star Jospeh Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon is a smart, witty and insightful modern romance tale that is as much tailored for the male crowd as it is the female crowd. Not only does Gordon-Levitt’s script brim with authenticity in both its insights and accuracy, his directorial instincts are surprisingly sharp and stylized for a first-time feature-film helmer. Don Jon (especially its first half) is crafted in a way that offers the viewer an experience that is visually engaging and entertaining – exactly what you want from cinema.
There are shades of early Guy Ritchie and/or Darren Aronofsky in the meticulous and repetitive high-speed sequencing that conveys Jon’s circular life patterns; it’s good gimmickry at first, but later on the director manages to settle into a rhythm and style that seems more uniquely his own, revealing a sensitivity to, and ability to convey, real emotional drama and character depth. There is also definite development that is well-paced through both the character and narrative arcs, and a thematic core which attempts to – and ultimately does – say something about modern day notions of sex and love in a way that is highly palatable to the young adults the film is aimed at.
Are there, at times, signs of a cinematic storyteller still trying to find his way? Of course there are – not all the seams are hidden in this film. The last act, while smart and emotionally insightful, starts to drag; Barbara’s character could’ve been fleshed out more, etc. However, Gordon-Levitt has clearly soaked up good ideas and creative techniques from the multitude of skilled people he has worked with over the years – and then, found a way to transmogrify those borrowed elements into a voice that is distinctly his own, and a filmmaking style that’s on its way to being distinctly his own.
It certainly helps to have a skilled cast of actors backing you up while you’re trying make your filmmaking debut – and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fortunate enough to have had that in his corner.
First off, he has himself to thank for turning in a good leading performance. Even when discussing some of the crassest subject matter possible – while dropping some pretty crass views through spot-on voiceover narration – Jon is nonetheless a charming and charismatic guy worth following through this very unconventional love story. The fact that Gordon-Levitt had time and energy to expend on writing, directing, AND turning in a strong lead performance is just further testament to his skills as an overall filmmaker.
Scarlett Johansson is sometimes labeled as being too wooden and unremarkable in her roles – but to her credit, in Don Jon she does create a strong character in Barbara, down to her thick Jersey brogue, which is distracting at first (coming from Black Widow), but eases into the ear as the film progresses. Johansson is also good about conveying subtle but iron-clad will underneath her bombshell looks – especially important as it becomes increasingly apparent to Jon (and the audience) that this goddess he has on the pedestal may not be as divine as he initially thought.
Beyond the two leads, the film is bolstered by a cast of great supporting actors. When you want the dramatic end of a movie locked-up, Julianne Moore is the actress you want to call. As Esther, the quirky older lady who attends Jon’s night class, Moore once again does the job of bringing the more serious side of the story to life in a way that isn’t overly melodramatic or out of step with the tone of the film. She’s the perfect delivery system for Gordon-Levitt’s pontifications about love, relationships and people, selling the preachier material in a stripped-down, no-nonsense way that is deceptively natural.
On the other end of that spectrum are actors like Tony Danza, Glenne Headley and Brie Larson, who ham it up (one way or another) to play Jon’s family. Danza especially steals the show as Jon Sr., the prototypical example of the faux machismo Jon Jr. bases his personality on. Good to see Danza back, and putting his comedic skills to proper use. Larson, meanwhile, has the most fun of the entire cast, as her role is pretty much relegated to constantly texting on her phone while looking utterly bored and uninvolved with the rom-drama. A pretty amusing running gag in the film.
In the end, Gordon-Levitt offers something that is funny, witty, honest and eventually heartfelt, without having to pander to the saccharine fantasies or gross-out raunch humor that have become the two main lanes of rom-com cinema. This is a date movie whose boldness, edge and careful handling of some volatile material truly makes it balanced and engaging to both sides of the gender spectrum. By the time the credits roll, you won’t just leave the theater feeling entertained – you’ll leave with something to talk about. And for a first-timer, crafting a film that gets people talking is quite an accomplishment.
Too bad if you’re a non-fan of JGL; it doesn’t look like the kid is going to be drowning in these deeper waters of filmmaking. His breaststroke is strong. The Don has arrived.
Don Jon is now in theaters. It is 90 min and is rated Rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use.