Joseph Gordon-Levitt has certainly grown up since playing the whippersnapper on “3rd Rock From the Sun.” In “Don Jon,” his feature-length writing and directorial debut, he stars as Jon, a New Jersey bartender who has no trouble bedding ladies but finds pornography so much more transcendent.
“Don Jon” is a disarming film that proves Gordon-Levitt’s deftness both behind the camera and in front of a computer screen, writing. The movie starts as a raunch-fest, reveling in crass language and frank discussions about the relative merits of computer-generated ecstasy over the old-fashioned kind. But somewhere along the way, the comedy seamlessly morphs into an incisive satire and, finally, an extremely affecting story about the value of intimacy between two real people — not actors, not avatars.
The film switches gears from simple comedy to something more once Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) enters the picture. Jon, who tends to rate girls on a 10-point scale when he’s out with his posse of dudes, labels her a “dime.” In a more simplistic film, this bombshell with her tiny dresses and oversize hoop earrings might be the thing that gets Jon away from his laptop.
Instead, Gordon-Levitt makes Barbara a foil for Jon. But rather than harboring an addiction to pornography, she believes in a different kind of fakery: the happy endings and Prince Charmings of romantic comedies. While their predilections look different, they aren’t. Both characters have confused moving pictures with reality, so when everyday life unfolds before them, it tends to look less vibrant than the fantasy worlds they’ve virtually inhabited.
The story makes clever use of repetition, demonstrating evolution by the way Jon approaches certain routines that become familiar to the viewer. He goes to the club with his boys, he eats dinner with his family (Where have Tony Danza and Glenne Headly been? Both are wonderful as the loud, sports-obsessed father and the oppressive mother who yearns to be a grandma), he goes to church and confesses his sins — including his vast computer usage — and pumps iron at the gym. Barbara also persuades him to start taking a class, which is where he’s befriended by a flighty oversharer, Esther (Julianne Moore).
With the exception of Jon’s sister Monica (Brie Larson), who has a twisting-yet-predictable trajectory, the characters are nuanced and expertly crafted. Jon may look like a caricature, with his tank tops and slicked-back hair, but there’s plenty happening behind that familiar facade.
Better yet, the film manages to be extremely efficient, conveying its points, making the audience laugh, getting viewers invested and even breaking our hearts in just 90 minutes.
The only real down side of “Don Jon” is the extreme vulgarity, especially early on. It’s easy to imagine that some of Jon’s audacious admissions could alienate certain audience members, and it would be a shame if the outrageousness overshadowed the movie’s thoughtful revelations and surprisingly sweet heart.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and drug use. 90 minutes.