Title: Don Jon
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Major Players: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore
Out Of Five? 3.5
Actors seem to be queuing up to direct of late. James Franco has made himself comfortable on the other side of the lens, although he’s received a mixed reception from audiences and critics alike, and now action-man Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in the director’s chair. But not for the type of film you would expect.
He plays the title role in comedy Don Jon, the nickname of his character who has an unerring ability to pull the most attractive girl in the room. But it’s always for one night only because none of them ever live up to the pleasure he gets from their rival – online pornography. When he meets the gorgeous Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), his habit diminishes – but it doesn’t totally go away.
The mention of pornography immediately conjures up an image of something smutty and sleazy, but Don Jon isn’t like that. True, there’s an abundance of images of Jon’s pixelated fantasy women, but any – how shall I say this? – action sequences have been cut (the original version contained an explicit scene which was removed to give the film a more accessible rating in the USA). And all we see of their effect on Jon are used tissues in the waste bin.
Nor is it a treatise on the exploitation of women, although it would have been easy to go down that road. The images of the women online and on TV are enough to make that a theme, without beating us over the head with it. What we have here is a comedy about human attraction and relationships, which exposes the emptiness of online sexual experiences – and which is surprisingly sweet and romantic at its core.
Gordon-Levitt hasn’t just directed and starred in this: he’s also written the script. And, for a first-timer, it shows huge promise. He’s got a great ear for quick-fire dialogue, especially between Jon and his friends, and he’s clearly absorbed a lot from his experiences in action movies, especially a crisp editing style. The scenes showing his routines move the film along briskly and link it together neatly, but they also show changes – or not – in his life. His weekly visit to church always culminates in confession, telling both us and the priest the scale of his porn addiction. The resulting penances vary accordingly – and he does them during his gym sessions.
He’s also got a really good performance out of Johansson and, indeed, they have great on-screen chemistry and make a convincing couple. There’s a lovely turn as well from Tony Danza as Jon’s father, a mini Raging Bull who eats his dinner at the table wearing his vest and watching the football – loudly – on TV. He’s beautifully counterbalanced by his near-silent daughter, Angela (Glenne Headly), who spends most of the film super-glued to her mobile phone sending messages and uses her handful of dialogue in one go to tell Jon why his relationship with Barbara would never work.
Julianne Moore plays Esther, who Jon meets at evening classes and, while she’s one of the best actresses around, I fear she’s miscast in this role. Her relationship with Jon simply doesn’t convince and lends to the feeling in the last half hour or so that the film has slightly lost its way. Maybe that’s why it ends rather abruptly.
Don Jon is a sharp, funny and surprisingly insightful comedy and certainly not the obvious choice for Gordon-Levitt as a first-time director. So his next project, whatever that is, should be even more worth watching.
Don Jon opens nationwide on Friday, 15 November.