Since leaving behind his teen actor days of the nineties, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s been one of the few promising young stars who’s seemed to consciously try to always work with interesting filmmakers, and considering his level of fame and popularity now, it’s pretty much paid off (we’ll just forget about G.I. Joe shall we?). As such his move to becoming a writer/director for the first time begs interest, though it’s worth remembering that risk-taking actors do sometimes choose to play it safe when trying their hand at directing (Edward Norton’s Keeping the Faith).
He does also choose a rom-com for his auteur debut, but judging from the opening montage of Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt’s not going to take the easy route, as he introduces us to his character and his take on life via a monologue about everything he loves. He’s a gym-obsessed bartender, who has no trouble picking up women at clubs for one-night-stands, but what he loves the most in life, is watching porn.
There is something I always find a bit odd in watching an actor perform a sex scene knowing they’ve written and directed it for themselves, and while Gordon-Levitt does indulge in a few (brief) ones, he also counters these with plenty of ego-free scenes of him masturbating, usually facing directly into the camera for maximum discomfort. There is still a touch of vanity about him casting himself as such a ladies’ man (there’s a few bits of dialogue relating to his physical appeal) but he manages to almost completely sell the character (bar one moment involving his computer knowledge), and even makes him a tiny bit endearing.
Jon’s lifestyle is radically altered when he sets eyes on Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), his charms gain her interest but she isn’t about to hop into his bed, he’s going to have to work much harder to win her over. While Jon’s ease of access, and subsequent addiction to porn have given him unrealistic expectations of women, Barbara’s love of schmaltzy Hollywood romance movies have given her one of men (they watch a spot-on parody of such a movie at one point). The collision between their perceptions and how it affects their chances at a real relationship is the big idea behind Don Jon. It’s explored very well from Jon’s side, but it feels like there was a lot more to be seen from Barbara’s.
The sociable, athletic, outgoing Jon is not an obvious image of a porn addict, and similarly the film takes an atypical approach to the topic. It’s never a deeply serious film; fitting in several comic scenes with Jon’s family (mainly he and his father exchanging profane comments whilst wearing matching vests) but it’s also frank and realistic about Jon’s troubles. It even gets in a couple of amusing pot-shots at Catholic confession, as Jon describes his sex habits every week, only to be told to repeat a number of ‘Hail Marys’ and ‘Our Fathers’ by a monotonous unseen priest.
Jon’s arc over the film’s course is quite a predictable one, but the film throws a firecracker into the mix at around the halfway mark in the form of Julianne Moore, playing a classmate of Jon’s in a night course he is taking. She becomes a major part of the film in its latter half and takes it in far more unexpected directions. She’s an unusual and fascinating character for such a film, played with expected excellence by Moore, and her arrival adds a new element of freshness to the film that only serves to elevate it further.
All this working with acclaimed filmmakers has clearly rubbed off on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as he directs the film with noticeable skill. His camera positioning and editing choices pay off handsomely; particularly in framing shots and creating montages that convey the repetitious aspects of Jon’s life that he subtly tweaks when Jon starts to re-think things. Don Jon ultimately shows a great deal of potential for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a director.