Few stars working today enjoy the same degree of near-universal adulation as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, now nine years out after ending his acting hiatus and all grown up from his stint on TV sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. His latest film, Don Jon, a modern riff on the licentious legend of classic literary anti-hero Don Juan, may best evince how far he’s come from his Tommy Solomon salad days; here, he not only serves as leading man, but as writer and director, tasks he’s previously taken on with short films (produced by and distributed through hitRECord, the studio he and his brother founded in 2004) but never with a feature-length effort.
He also hasn’t tackled subject matter that’s this outwardly edgy, though one should expect the perverse from any story with even the faintest connection to Don Juan’s salacious misdeeds. Here, Gordon-Levitt himself represents that character in the role of Jon Martello, a meatheaded New Jersey Lothario who ends every day of his regimented, ordered life with a trip to PornHub, where he shuffles through adult video clips – for what feels like hours, and often with a random woman sound asleep in his bed – to find the perfect post-coital X-rated aperitif; it’s a ritual we see him undertake more than once, and which he performs in order to curb his disappointment in the sexual encounters of his reality.
All of his routines and self-satisfaction collides with the promise of change when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), dubs her a dime, and takes to seriously courting her. Obviously, whether or not that change proves to be for better or for worse is a discussion reserved for those who have seen Don Jon for themselves, but if the film’s preoccupation with romantic comedies hints at anything, it’s a third act submission to formula. Admittedly, Gordon-Levitt puts his personal stamp on that blueprint which grounds his narrative and restrains himself from going full-bore with expected genre flourishes, but that’s only appropriate for a film that’s all about breaking away from the habitual.
That’s the key focal point for Don Jon, more so than its examination of the protagonist’s porn addiction. (And he is very much addicted, if his voice over claims of willpower – he can stop anytime! – don’t make that abundantly clear.) Jon is a prisoner of his quotidian behaviors, a guy who can’t imagine for one second what a day might bring if he zigged instead of zagging. As the film pushes his beyond his own boundaries of comfort, we slowly start to see him make concessions toward change; he plays basketball in lieu of lifting weights, and he fesses up about lying in confession. Through his hazy lifestyle of objectification, a human being slowly emerges.
Watching Gordon-Levitt play up the transformation – and indulge in the character’s Jersey Shore levels of sophistication – might well be Don Jon‘s purest pleasure; he’s a sharp, versatile performer whether he’s bringing tough guy street smarts to roles like Brick and Looper or naked, human vulnerability to 50/50, but none of this is new. Latter day Gordon-Levitt has been a known quantity for close to a decade. His talents have been established, acknowledged, and subsequently cherished. What is new stems from the vitality he lends to his production from behind the camera, something that his dabbling in short-form cinema can only hint at.
So as to not overstate the case, the man is good. If someday we look back on Don Jon as the arrival of a major filmmaking visionary, there may be a double take or two in order, but in the meantime there’s plenty of room to admire Gordon-Levitt’s directorial skills without smothering him with knee-jerk effusion. Don Jon would be a solid effort even coming from a slightly more experienced filmmaker – funny, engaging, heartfelt, respectably daring, slyly on-point in criticisms about technology as a social arbiter – so there’s likely going to be space in JoGo’s future for him to similarly take the helm on other projects (and each will hopefully operate on the same sort of intimate scale as Don Jon).
In between now and then, there’s room for him to develop his storytelling chops. Don Jon certainly has its warts, chief among them the ways it utilizes all but one of its female characters (who happens to be the most reticent person in the entire film). Johansson takes a big, enthusiastic bite out of Barbara’s pathos, giving a performance that easily matches Gordon-Levitt’s own, but she does so in service to a part that’s ultimately written as one-sided; meanwhile, Julianne Moore, playing Esther, the other significant female figure in Jon’s life, seems to be on set only to provide a deus ex machina that gives Don Jon an easy path to a disappointingly pat conclusion. Neither actress slouches, but on that same token, neither of them can really rise above the limitations imposed on them by the script.
That makes for an experience pockmarked by frustrating gender politics, however infrequently they may surface. Don Jon almost plays like a guide toward manhood and maintaining meaningful romantic relationships for the modern teenage male, and it’s certainly successful in that regard even if Barbara and Esther come up short in terms of characterization. There’s a sense that the solution to the film’s stumbling blocks could have been found in running time; clocking in at barely an hour and a half, one can only imagine how much Don Jon could have benefited from even five extra minutes of footage, just enough to give the tale additional breathing room.
And yet those shortcomings can’t truly be held against what’s an otherwise sharply crafted movie brimming with the cool confidence Gordon-Levitt shows in every frame. He’s in control here, both in his capacity as leading man and architect to the picture; for all of the influences that played a role in Don Jon‘s conception, there’s no denying that it’s a film that’s entirely Gordon-Levitt’s.