“Don Jon”—the writing and directorial debut of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt—is easy enough to enjoy. It’s fairly straightforward, it has some wonderfully funny and vulgar bits and Levitt brings a certain level of energy and zaniness to the whole affair that makes it hard to completely dislike. At the same time however, you can tell that it’s a directorial debut. Despite its simple pleasures, Levitt’s screenplay doesn’t cut deep enough. Most of the characters remain underdeveloped, he tosses around certain themes that aren’t explored very much, and there are major plot points and revelations that come a little too late. On a whole it’s a worthy effort even if it doesn’t entirely work.
Levitt plays the title character Jon, a loud mouthed hot headed New Jersey male, you know sort of like the kind you would see on a show like “Jersey Shore.” He only seems to care about a few things in life: women, working out, and spending time with his family on Sunday after church. And when he’s not spending time with family or pumping iron he and his bone headed buddies can be found at the club grinding on chicks.
Levitt himself is probably the main reason to even consider seeing “Don Jon.” Even though the role doesn’t fit into his history of playing intelligent (sometimes charming), witty, nice guys (Jon is almost the exact opposite), he’s still likable. He may not be the brightest bulb but there’s something genuine and upfront about him that makes you remain on his side the entire time. He also has a few little quirks--like being a clean freak and confessing his sins every Sunday even though he doesn’t try to improve himself—that add a bit more to his personality.
In most respects he’s the classic romantic comedy stud; it usually takes only a single glance and he’s in bed with a smokin’ hot girl and then never sees her again. That is, until he encounters Barbara (a gum snapping Scarlett Johansson with a Jersey accent) who, in Jon’s words is a “dime” (perfect ten). She doesn’t sleep with him right away but instead makes him play “the long game” (I know, bummer right?). He does, and pretty soon they’re going out and after a month he finally gets to seal the deal. But then there’s this other chick Esther (Julianne Moore) who’s in one of his night school courses. She’s older, not as attractive, kooky, meddlesome and kind of a mess (they first meet each other when he sees her crying in a doorway) and yet slowly but surely a spark appears between them.
Though, Jon has one peculiar obsession that sets him apart from all of the other rom-com studs: he loves Internet porn. No I mean really loves porn. In fact he loves it more than actual sex because it’s one sided. When you sleep with another human being you can’t always do what you want to do, you know because there’s two people, whereas on the Internet you’re in control. And every so often when goes to his next session we get voice over commentary from him telling us his justification for doing it.
So when he’s not with his family, pumping iron, or hitting the clubs he’s spanking the monkey. Sometimes, the morning after he’s slept with someone (including Barbara) he sneaks off to rub one out before they wake up. It’s pretty much an addiction. In this way, “Don Jon” shares a little bit of DNA with Steve McQueen’s 2011 movie “Shame” in which Michael Fassbender played a sex addict. But of course McQueen’s movie takes the matter very seriously--the sex and masturbating in that picture didn’t look fun one bit—and in “Don Jon” it’s treated lightly. This isn’t a bad thing and it proves to be a mildly interesting quirk but after a few masturbation scenes it starts to get a little stale and repetitive, Levitt doesn’t take it anywhere very remarkable or exciting. We get it, he’s a selfish guy and by the end he’s probably going to change.
This isn’t the only problem with “Don Jon.” Levitt also spends too much time on the Jon/Barbara relationship. Johansson does what she can but the role doesn’t have much substance. She’s a knockout in the looks department and she makes him wait on having sex but those seem to be the only reasons why Jon is enamored by her. Towards the end there is a suggestion that she too has a one sided approach to relationships but it comes a little too late and isn’t explored any further.
What Levitt should have focused on was the Jon/Esther relationship, because it turns out to be the central relationship. She’s not Jon’s typical girl but she sees right through his shtick and exposes his flaws. As good as Levitt and Moore are together their relationship isn’t given enough time to develop naturally. I didn’t quite buy his attraction to her, or vice versa. On top of that there’s a rather important scene where we find out why Esther is such a mess (the only real serious, emotional scene in the whole movie) that should have come sooner; in its current place it comes too much out of left field, doesn’t match the rest of the movie’s comedic tone and it’s sort of just discarded after that scene.
The movie is largely repetitive. Jon drives to church in his Mustang, goes to confession, has brunch with his family: dad (Tony Danza), mom (Glenne Headly) and sister Monica (a criminally underused Brie Larson). Then he goes to the gym (where he recites his Hail Marys), then he either goes out clubbing or spends time with Monica, and finally he goes to his college class where he talks to Esther. Oh, and throw in at least two or three masturbation sessions. I gather that this is intentional, Levitt is trying to give the story’s structure a rhythmic quality (and at the end there’s a sense that this “routine” is broken) but the movie is repetitive without giving us much new information or developing the characters.
Other than the fact that his father is an aging version of him, we don’t learn much about Jon Sr. and their relationship seems to only consist of yelling at each other across the table or agreeing on how hot Barbara is. The mother and sister remain even more one note and the same can be said for Jon’s club buddies. Perhaps the film could be longer (it’s only ninety minutes) although I’m not sure it utilizes the time it does have very well. Overall, the picture doesn’t come together and it ends midstory.
I don’t mean to come down too hard on “Don Jon.” It is a first feature and it’s not terrible. Levitt has now shown that he has some talent (when it comes to comedy) not just in front of the camera but behind it as well, and I think if he continues to direct he could definitely improve. I was never bored during the movie, there are some clever bits of humor and all of the acting is solid, but “Don Jon” is simply not fully realized.