Directed by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Written by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jon), Scarlett Johansson (Barbara), Julianne Moore (Esther), Tony Danza (Jon Sr.), Glenne Headly (Angela), Brie Larson (Monica), Rob Brown (Bobby), Jeremy Luke (Danny), Paul Ben-Victor (Priest), Italia Ricci (Gina), Lindsey Broad (Lauren), Amanda Perez (Lisa), Sarah Dumont (Sequins), Sloane Avery (Patricia), Loanne Bishop (Barbara's Mom).
Like many first time directors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt tries to cram too much into his debut feature, Don Jon. This is a movie filled with ideas, and characters, and undoubtedly tries to do more than any one 90 minute comedy could realistically expect to pull off. And yet, despite that, he has made a very entertaining first film – and shows immense potential for the future. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t take the easy road with this movie, although I do hope he realizes that less can sometimes mean more.
Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed and stars as the title character – Jon – a New Jersey bartender (complete with what I would normally call an exaggerated accent, but then I have seen promos for Jersey Shore). He is good looking and charming in his Jersey way, and has no problem taking home a different beautiful girl every weekend. The problem is that for Jon, the actual sex he is having cannot measure up to the porn he watches obsessively on his computer whenever he gets the chance. The women he sleeps with are stubbornly human – with their own needs and desires, and to put it bluntly they won’t do all the same things the girls in porn will do (shocking, I know). Than he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), and she slowly starts to try and change Jon – manipulating him with sex to get him to do whatever she wants. She doesn’t like his job, so she gets him to go back to school. She wants to blend friends, and meet families. And she despises internet porn. But as the movie also makes clear, while Jon has unrealistic ideas of what sex should be from porn, Barbara has unrealistic ideas of what relationships should be like from romantic movies. To her, if a guy isn’t willing to do anything she asks for her, he doesn’t really love her.
There are more characters – Jon’s overbearing, stereotypical New Jersey family - Tony Danza in his best (only?) role in years, Glenne Headly playing the stereotypical weeping mother, and Brie Larson showing off a wide range of eye rolling – his friends (it was nice to see Rob Brown in something – I always wondered what happened to him after Finding Forrester) – and most important of all Esther (Julianne Moore). Esther is a woman Jon meets at his night class. He catches her crying outside one day, and ignores her. The next week, she tries to explain – but he isn’t interested. But gradually, the two do begin to talk, and then more. If Barbara is trying to get Jon to change into the man she wants through sexual manipulation, than Esther is trying to get him to change, not because of her own desires, but because it would be better for him.
The movie’s greatest strength is Gordon-Levitt himself. He has mainly been in dramas for the past few years (even his one comedy, 50/50, he plays a guy with cancer), so it was nice to see him play a character this oversized and comedic. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t shy away from the New Jersey stereotypes in his portrayal of Jon – in fact, he full on embraces them with his accent, his clothes and his hair – but Jon is not just a walking stereotype. Gradually, he reveals layers to himself, and despite his outward confidence and obnoxiousness, you start to like the guy. Not to be outdone, Scarlett Johansson goes full on Jersey Shore with her accent and mannerisms – and nails it. Too few have exploited Johansson’s comedic gifts over her career – but she has them. Julianne Moore is very good as Esther – the older woman who takes Jon under her wing a little bit – and shows him what love and sex should be like.
It is in the writing of both Barbara and Esther than the movie has its biggest problem however. Gordon-Levitt tries to make the point that romantic comedies warp Barbara’s idea about love, just like the porn warps Jon’s ideas about sex, but it is an underwritten idea - yes, the clips of the movies they watch, complete with movie star cameos are hilarious – but because the movie never spends any time with Barbara by herself – she’s never seen Jon – she never really becomes a complete character. If Gordon-Levitt doesn’t necessarily excuse Jon’s porn addiction, he certainly gives him plenty of room to grow by the end – room that Johansson’s Barbara never gets. Esther is an even more underwritten character – her revelation about the source of her crying doesn’t quite hit as hard as it should, and she never really becomes a fully rounded character herself – just someone who fills a plot point. Both Johansson and Moore are excellent however – they help paper over the flaws in the writing of their characters, but I almost want to see two more movies – one from Barbara’s point of view and one from Esther’s – because the time we spend with them in Don Jon makes me want to spend more with both of them.
Perhaps though that really isn’t Gordon-Levitt’s fault. He is, after all, making a movie almost entirely from his character’s point-of-view, and for almost the entire movie, his character does only see the women in his life in the ways they affect him – and not as complete people. And it is to the movie’s credit that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t try to wrap everything up in a happy ending where Jon is “cured” – but instead only offers hope that he will, eventually, be able to have a mature, committed relationship with a woman. I do wish we’d get more movies like this from the women’s point of view however – but that’s really Hollywood’s problem, and not Gordon-Levitt’s.
Don Jon is a promising debut film from Gordon-Levitt, the writer director. He does try to cram too much into his running time (I haven’t even mentioned his take on religion in the film, which feels underdeveloped), and as a result his movie has a little to say about a lot of subjects, when it would be better if it had more to say on fewer subjects. But that’s something many directors learn with time. I liked Don Jon – it is funny and well-acted – the charm of the actors helping to overcome some of the scripts weaknesses. I look forward to seeing what Gordon-Levitt does next as a writer/director. He may not have made a great film this time out, but Don Jon shows that the potential is there for him to get there someday.