When New Jersey pick-up artist Jon Martello (Levitt) falls for the unfeasibly attractive Barbara (Johansson), he quits his womanising ways. However, it proves much harder for Jon to break up with his one, true love/obsession: internet porn.
Within the first few seconds of Don Jon, you’re in no doubt as to what point Joseph Gordon-Levitt is making with his debut as writer-director. Instantly he bombards us with a quick-fire pop-culture montage: lipstick adverts, bikini-clad weather girls, hip-hop promos, ring girls at boxing matches… And within a few moments he has segued into internet porn, by way of introducing himself as his own main character masturbating in the cool glow of a laptop screen. It is not a segue which needs to cover much distance. Yet this is no grim drama about the pornification of Western culture and the pervasive objectification of women. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an actor whose big-screen evolution occurred via 10 Things I Hate About You and (500) Days Of Summer, Don Jon is a romantic comedy with a welcome twist.
It is no act of vanity for Gordon-Levitt to cast himself as a guy so casually attractive to women that his pinhead chums have nicknamed him ‘Don’. He may be buff and slick and, eventually, get to caress Scarlett Johansson in the guise of Joisey gal Barbara Sugarman, but he does spend a lot of the film holding Kleenex to his groin in front of a computer — even after he has scored himself a woman who is, it appears, pretty much the ideal girlfriend. “Nothing does it for me the same way,” Jon narrates. “Not even real pussy.”
Jon is hardly likable, but in Gordon-Levitt’s hands (as writer as well as performer), he’s not completely repellent. His view of women is risible, given they never meet the impossible sexual standards of his on-monitor fantasy girls. His fervent Catholicism, meanwhile, is his get-out clause.
A few Hail Marys and Lord’s Prayers (intoned during his gym work-outs) set him right again, he believes. Religion isn’t the answer to this problem. But as well as being a dead funny satire, not to mention one which does contain some genuinely erotic moments, this is also an engrossing tale of redemption, of Jon’s journey towards learning to manage (s)expectation and, ultimately, subjectify women.
What’s interesting is Gordon-Levitt also takes in the other kinds of lies our culture feeds us and gets us hooked on. Johansson’s Barbara revels in Hollywood romance-fantasy, represented here in neat send-up movie-within-movie Special Someone, starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. “He gave up everything for her,” Barbara coos. “Her?” grimaces Jon. “She’s too skinny.” They both want something impossible from their partner.
Gordon-Levitt exhibits impressive confidence as a director, and there is an appealing rhythm to his film as it flicks back and forth between his compulsive jerk-offs, his family dinners (featuring a hilariously gauche Tony Danza as his dad), his cursory confessions, his testosteronal bantering with his braggart compadres and his dutiful attendance of night-school lessons.
This is the only place, it turns out, where the self-betterment truly begins, through a development which contains the plot’s biggest concessions to genre formula but not in a way that fails to satisfy, thanks in part to the on-the-nose casting of Julianne Moore as a troubled fellow student.
Don Jon is all-round proof of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s enduring, all-round talent. It’s remarkable that he’s crafted a romantic comedy that not only finds fresh material to satirise, but which also rams home a serious point about our culture while alleviating the genre’s usual wish-fulfilment nonsense.
Far smarter, sexier and saltier than your average rom-com the perfect antidote to every Hollywood fairy tale thats ever lied to you.