Another actor proves his can write and direct! Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an incredibly strong directorial debut with Don Jon (formerly known as Don Jon’s Addiction when I saw it back at Sundance earlier this year), an outstanding take on and deconstruction of romantic comedies. Writing and directing as well as taking the lead role here, Gordon-Levitt nails each part of the equation, making for what was one of my favorite films at Sundance and one of my top ten for the year to date. JGL is really great as the title character, but Scarlett Johansson is rather terrific too, while Tony Danza steals every single scene that he’s in, and Julianne Moore is her reliable self in a smaller role than usual for her. This tale of a modern-day Don Juan dealing with porn addiction, female objectification, and how media and pop culture influence both genders, is peddling not just sex, but a message as well. There’s plenty of nudity and barely covered up shots of porn too for those of you who are hoping for that sort of thing, but this never becomes exploitation and actually has more in common with Shame or the recent Thanks for Sharing than you’d initially expect (it’s not quite as brilliant as the former, but it’s much stronger than the latter). Funny and warmhearted, the flick announces Gordon-Levitt as a new multi-hyphenate to watch. Regardless of what he does with his behind the camera career going forward, this is a great movie and one of my favorites of 2013 so far.
For Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt), it’s all about the superficial things in life. Jon has a few specific focuses, basically his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. He goes out and consistently tries to sleep with the hottest women he can (ideally 8′s, 9′s, or 10′s on his rating scale of 1-10), but none can compare to the pornography he constantly watches and perhaps is addicted to. Sex is great, as he tells us in one of his voiceovers, but it doesn’t hold a candle to porno. Jon is forced to play the long game when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), a “dime” who won’t give it up as easily as he’s used to. They actually begin a real relationship, with Barbara slowly changing Jon through the tease of impending intercourse (one such moment leads to a laugh out loud climax, no pun intended), including going back to school. Of course, she doesn’t know about his porn addiction, and when she finds out, it’s safe to say that she’s none too pleased about it. On the other hand, night school classmate Esther (Moore) doesn’t have a problem with it at all. With Jon facing potential changes in his life for the first time in years, he actually confronts the fact that he may have a problem, though other shortcomings in his life are apparent during weekly dinners with his family, which consist of brash father Jon Sr. (Danza), calm mother Angela (Glenne Headley), and technology obsessed sister Monica (Brie Larson). While the plot doesn’t necessarily sound like anything spectacular, it’s the execution that makes this so special and such an incredibly entertaining film all around.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has never quite played this type of a role before, but somehow he’s a natural for it. Taking a cue from the nincompoops seen on shows like Jersey Shore, he’s crafted a modern-day Don Juan who’s likely to be seen as disgusting just as often as he’s seen as being charming…depending on who you are, of course. That’s completely intentional too and JGL has an absolute blast with the part he’s given himself. A similar kind of role was given to Scarlett Johansson and she’s just about as impressive here., turning in work that I think ranks among the best half dozen performances she’s ever delivered. Gordon-Levitt really knew what he was doing when he cast her. Johansson plays up her sexiness, but also hints constantly at what else Barbara has going on, both in terms of good traits and bad ones as well. Their chemistry together is impeccable and one of the reasons why the film works so well. The same can be said for when JGL is with Tony Danza, who’s hilarious as Jon Senior while also showing you a lot about who Jon Jr. is. Danza, playing off of his image, nearly steals the movie and gives one of my favorite male supporting performances of the year. Yes, he’s that good.. Julianne Moore enters things later than everyone else and is playing a slightly more subdued character, but she’s quite strong as well. Moore is never bad, and this is no exception. Her scenes with Gordon-Levitt in the third act are really great. Also on hand are Brie Larson and Rob Brown (with the former mostly wasted except for one strong scene), along with the aforementioned Glenne Headley and others but JGL, Johansson, and Danza are the shining stars.
Not only does Gordon-Levitt have a strong eye and distinctive visual sense on display here (one that actually recalled the early films of Paul Thomas Anderson at times for me), he’s proven to be a great writer as well. The script is very perceptive about both genders, brutally funny, and emotionally honest. As a director, he lets his actors have space, but he doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff at all (some of the scenes have apparently been toned down since Sundance, presumably to avoid the potential for an NC-17 rating). I also dug his chose of composer (Nathan Johnson for all you Looper fans out there), which shows the thought he put into all aspects of this project. His screenplay could have been a disaster in the wrong hands, but he knew to keep Don Jon for himself and the result is exceptional. My favorite scene is an extended one where he details the ways in which watching porn and masturbating is superior to actual sex. It’s a riot and gives you a ton of information about Jon all at the same time.
Don Jon (I still kind of wish it kept the original title Don Jon’s Addiction, but that’s me) was an absolute treat to watch and one of the highlights of Sundance back in January. Everything about it worked and I can’t wait for you all to finally get a chance to see it. I expected a summer release, but this early fall one is actually an even stronger sign of confidence for it, so I’m all on board with that. I can’t recommend this one enough (for all of the myriad reasons mentioned above) and hope you see this film sooner rather than later. Joseph Gordon-Levitt can really do it all, the proof is right here to see. I look forward to his future behind the camera now just as much as his future in front of it. He’s going to be an Oscar nominee before long, though now it’s fair to question if it’ll be for acting or maybe for writing or directing. He’s frankly got the potential to do all three. Independent of that, this flick is a winner and a must see, so go see it…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!