Don Jon (2013, directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
For my money, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the best young actor in the business today. Even since he blew up like a young Brando in Araki's Mysterious Skin he's been someone whose work I make a point of seeing, and his rise towards the A-list has been relatively smooth so far. He's still at that point in his career where he's willing to take not just theoretical chances but actual risks, and when you combine extraordinary talent with a willingness to challenge yourself, great things can happen. So when I read the writeup for Don Jon it immediately became one of my more anticipated films of this fest. Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut, it seemed to be a Jersey Shore boy-meets-girl comedy in which the main obstacle isn't another guy or girl but a porn addiction. Scarlet Johansson was the flesh and blood object of his desire, Tony Danza was his dad... given the comedic skills of everyone involved, surely wacky hijinx would ensue. Right?
Well, yes and no. Much like the JGL starring vehicle 50/50, Don Jon has plenty of laughs, but also some thematic meat on its bones.
Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a Jersey bartender whose life is in a pretty sweet groove. He has a great car and a great apartment, and his streak of smashing a different hottie every time he goes to the club with his boys remains unbroken. Despite the steady parade of pussy he also spanks it to internet porn on an incredibly regular basis, because real girls won't do the thing porn girls do. As he says his weekly allotment of hail marys while pumping iron, it doesn't seem like things could get any better.
Then he sees Barbara (Johansson), a true dime instead of the usual sevens and eights he's been scoring. Barbara doesn't put out the night they meet, and even though Jon ends up moving on to the next target he can't get Barbara out of his head. He tracks her down on Facebook, talks her into a date, and actually begins a real relationship with her. Barbara has her standards though, and her own ideas of what real men should and shouldn't do, and the perfect Jersey couple may not get the fairy-tale ending she envisions.
The performances are all pretty damn amazing. JGL kills it, Danza kills it playing the foul-mouthed version of himself, Julianne Moore kills it as a liberated hippie night school classmate of Jon's, but that's all as expected. It's Johansson who really steps up. She is completely believable as the ultimate Jersey princess, nailing the accent and the attitude in all its broad comedic glory while also driving home Barbara's sense of entitlement in little looks and body language. It's the best work she's ever done, and in tandem with Gordon-Levitt's own typically excellent performance they keep Don Jon flying forward.
Good as the acting is though, it wouldn't mean nearly as much if it was in service to a by-the-numbers sex comedy. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of sex in the movie, and a lot of laughs (Barbara's bedroom, to pick one of many examples, is basically one big sight gag with an awesome punchline), but the script very skillfully and subtly makes its points about the impact of modern media on people's ability to interact and connect with each other. And Gordon-Levitt's direction is remarkable for a debut. He wears his influences on his sleeve a bit (he nods to Aranofsky in the staccato montages of Jon's routines, for instance) but he knows how to tell a story while still allowing scenes to feel organic. One of my favorite moments in the film is a small one: Jon is driving down the road to church, singing along to Marky Mark's Good Vibrations, in a typical “from the passenger seat” shot. Another car is pulled up next to Jon at a red light and the woman in the other car starts laughing, because how could you possibly not laugh at a bro in a vintage Camaro singing Good Vibrations at the top of his lungs? The whole thing doesn't even feel scripted, it comes across as though JGL caught random passersby in his lens reacting to a completely ludicrous scene.
There is an awful lot to like about Don Jon, and an awful lot to look forward to if this is the kind of skill and assurance Gordon-Levitt is going to bring to the director's chair. Like Jon's typical score, we're talking a solid seven or eight here.
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