He can sing, he can dance, he can act, he can play music, and now apparently Joseph Gordon-Levitt can write and direct a movie (the nerve!). And the good news is, he can do so with both a silly playfulness and a mature confidence to turn a boy-meets-girl story into a deeper examination of expectations men and women have each other. DON JON looks at what happens when those expectation are in full effect and what happens when we drop them (almost) completely.
Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) is young, Italian, in good shape, wears his clothes like he means it and has a close-cropped haircut that he probably gets trimmed up every week. He drives a mean car, is close to his family (father Tony Danza, mother Glenne Headly and silent sister Brie Larson), attends church, and works out daily. And at the end of most days, he ends up in a club with his buddies (Bob Brown and Jeremy Luke), fairly confident that he can seduce any woman in the place with his perfect-package sense of self worth. But the one thing Jon's narration wants us to be very clear about is that masturbating to porn is more interesting to him than the limited opportunities of sex with a real woman.
That is until he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), one of the only women who won't sleep with him on the first date, or the second, or the third. She parcels out her physicality like breadcrumbs to a pigeon. She knows she's getting Jon worked up (even to the point of letting him dry hump her to completion in the hallway of her apartment building), and knows that he'll do just about anything for her to get her to eventually agree to have sex. She gets him to take classes to make him a smarter kind of guy, she wants to meet his family and friends. And where is she getting all of these ideas about the kind of man Joe should be? From her own version of hardcore porn: Hollywood romantic comedies.
There's an incredible scene in a grocery store where Jon is about to buy products to clean his apartment with, and Barbara refuses to let him do it because no man of hers will ever clean his own house. She supplies him with the number of her cleaning lady, and that's the end of that. Her perfect man from the movies is never seen mopping or dusting; it doesn't even matter than Jon likes to clean.
But DON JON isn't really about Jon and Barbara's relationship, which we know is destined to crap out because of his porn habit. What it's really about is Jon and Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman in his night class whom Jon catches crying on a couple of occasions outside of the school. At first, he struggles to ignore her, but after she catches him watching porn on his phone and doesn't freak out, she feels free to have open and frank discussions with her about sex, relationships and these expectations we have about men and women that are put out there by every form of media, all day-every day.
It's the conversations that Esther has with Jon that open up the film and make it something greater and more substantive than simply a relationship comedy featuring a couple of New Jerseyans. She doesn't cure him of his limited ideas about sex and what woman can be in his life, but she opens up the possibilities in ways that the glamourous Barbara never could, and it's a wonder to watch him wake up a little from his tired routine.
Gordon-Levitt walks the right side of the line to make Jon less of a mook and more of a lost soul who wants to be a better man but simply doesn't have anyone in his life to show him the way before meeting Esther. Johansson is the real marvel here, not because she looks good (she does; no getting around that), but the minute Barbara meets Jon, she owns him—we can see it in her eyes and the way she brandishes her fingernails when she talks to him. I was also impressed with Danza's work as Jon's father, a complete neanderthal whose only moment of interest in his son's life is when he brings Barbara home for dinner one night, where Jon Sr. proceeds to sex her up with his eyes.
I've seen DON JON three times in the last six months, and each time I caught myself noticing different subtleties in the way the characters are drawn and how the story plays out. It's smart, thought-provoking and even genuinely romantic at times, just not the times you think it'll be. I'm truly curious to see what Gordon-Levitt has in store if he decides to write and/or direct again, but because he's clearly a filmmaker who knows how to keep a story moving along, but isn't afraid to dial things down a bit to make the important moments stand out.
DON JON is also incredibly funny and charming in its vulgarity (it's almost funnier the more vulgar it gets). Quickly becoming one of entertainment's true Renaissance men, Gordon-Levitt puts in a strong show at every job he takes on in this film, and has made an all-around entertaining, very adult movie.