Let’s make one thing clear right away: Don Jon (rated R) is about sex. Sex sex sex. If discussions about sex turn you off, this review – and this movie – may not be for you. But for all its obsession with that biological function and why we all love it so much, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first film as a director is actually kind of sweet – even gentle, in its way. And unlike its lead character, it’s smart enough to know the difference between a movie with a lot of sex and a movie that uses sex as a trigger for a true exploration of human feelings.
Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a walking New Jersey stereotype – obsessed with his bodybuilding regimen, his car, his fastidiously maintained apartment, and his unbroken social charm bracelet of one-night stands. (Picture "The Situation" from MTV’s Jersey Shore – and then, while you’re at it, pity me for knowing who that is.) He’s a ladykiller in all but the most literal sense, and even the women who subsequently confront him for never calling them again can’t stay mad at Jon for long. His lifestyle also includes a rather encyclopedic passion for online pornography – he’s addicted to the stuff, and like any addict can recite chapter and verse of why these simulated onscreen sexual experiences are superior to the real thing.
But Jon can quit watching porn any time he wants. Really. Just ask him – or better yet, let Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), his latest would-be conquest, ask him herself. Spotting her in a nightclub, Jon immediately fixes her in his traction beam of would-be seduction. But she’s more or less immune to his charms, and soon the player finds himself being played: She talks him into becoming a one-woman guy, going to night school, get to know each other’s parents, giving up time with his pals, and helping her decorate her apartment. Thing is, he’s still enjoying his online experiences on the sly – not realizing that what she doesn’t know now will come back to haunt him later.
Don Jon spends so much time developing its characters – not only Jon and Barbara, but his folks (Tony Danza and Glenn Headly) and a night-school classmate (Julianne Moore, in a third-act surprise appearance) – that it’s mildly surprising to see just how much plot gets squeezed in as well. At a trim 90 minutes, the film is as well sculpted as its leading man. Under their Joisey patois, these walking clichés actually have a lot to say about the world in which they live – and Gordon-Levitt, suddenly a director worth watching, has crafted a film that does them justice. It’s mid-October now, so I’m pretty comfortable putting this out there: Don Jon is the best mainstream directorial debut of the year.
(IMAGE: Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Don Jon. Photo courtesy Relativity Media.)