‘Don Jon’: Handle your business

September 24, 2013

don jon

As directorial debuts by actors go, “Don Jon” is an auspicious one.

Too many of these projects are vanity affairs, the chance for the actor to try get all the focus. Alternatively, it’s a form of therapy, acted out in front of a camera and broadcast to the world.

But in the case of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who wrote, directed and stars, there’s an actual vision here – a sensibility which will be interesting to follow in the future, assuming he does it again.

Even if he doesn’t, “Don Jon” is a winner, a bold, provocative and funny tale of the ultimate self-obsession – a man with an addiction to pornography who doesn’t view himself as an addict. Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a New Jersey-born Italian-American who seems to have his life in order: He loves his life and keeps it just so, from the spic-and-span apartment to the carefully toned body to his weekly visits to both his parents and his church.

And the women: He’s a clubland Casanova, dancing and wooing the hottest women in each venue, eventually taking them home for a quick round in bed. But even as they drift off to sleep, Jon drifts into the other room, opens his laptop and finishes himself off. He has, after all, the perfect women at his fingertips and knows better than anyone just what satisfies him.

In other words, he’s got his world under control: no messy emotional connections, no worries (other than perpetual nagging from his mother about settling down and having kids). He’s got a job, he goes to confession and does his penance as a way of counting reps while working out at the gym. He is the envy of his friends, who can’t match him in his success rate with women.

Then he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who forces him to take his game to a new level. Indeed, he stops seeing it as a game and begins to see his relationship with her as something serious. He even does the unthinkable, taking her home to meet his parents, something he’s never done.

Just one problem: One night, after they’re finished in bed, he falls into his old habit and sits down with his laptop. She not only catches him but, when he lies his way out of it (“It was just that one time”), she makes it clear that she considers pornography not only disgusting but an insult to their relationship. Masturbating to porn, she lets him know, is the equivalent of cheating on her.

Now what? Even as he struggles with this new order, he’s also changing his life in other ways to please her. That includes enrolling in night classes, to work his way up the business ladder she wants him to climb. There, he meets an older woman, Esther (Julianne Moore), who badgers him for notes and company even when he makes it obvious that he’s not interested – until he is. She becomes his guide to what it is that women want – something he’s never considered.

The fast, clever cuts and concise storytelling only become discursive in the illuminating scenes when he’s dining with his parents, played by Tony Danza and Glenne Headly. He doesn’t call attention to the filmmaking because it seems to serve the story itself, to reflect the mind and mentality of Jon. Gordon-Levitt has made a film that has punch and style without succumbing to the urge to be flashy.

A solid actor good in a variety of modes, Gordon-Levitt is compelling as this confident man who suddenly loses his mojo because of a woman. Will he find a way to win Barbara? What will it cost him if he does? Gordon-Levitt makes us invest in the character, seeing past the cockiness to what lies beneath.

Johansson is more than his match as the young woman who knows (and perhaps even overvalues) her own worth. She’s both sexy and predatory, someone who identifies Jon as a potential project and isn’t above manipulating him into being who she wants.

Moore finds both the toughness and vulnerability of the unlikely woman in Jon’s life. Danza and Headly make hay with funny but not overwritten roles as Jon’s parents.

Smart, funny and insightful, “Don Jon” isn’t just good for a film directed by an actor or a first-timer – it’s a solid, entertaining film. Period.

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