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'Don Jon' is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's inexplicable directorial debut

The extremely talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an energetic but sadly shallow directorial debut with a look at a Jersey internet porn addict.

Tony Danza plays Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Jersey dad in "Don Jon." Credit: Daniel McFadden Tony Danza plays Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Jersey dad in "Don Jon."
Credit: Daniel McFadden

‘Don Jon’
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Films directed by great actors fall somewhere between two poles: Charles Laughton’s phantasmagoric “Night of the Hunter” on one side, Edward Norton’s inexplicable (but fairly charming) religious-themed rom-com “Keeping the Faith” on the other. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” is perhaps further out there than even “Faith.” One of the best actors of his generation, Gordon-Levitt has long had a sideline making short films and even hosting his own Internet filmmaking collective, hitRECord. That in no way prepares one for “Don Jon,” a keyed-up cavalcade of Jersey grotesques that’s energetically made to a fault and disappointingly, shockingly shallow. It’s hard to believe he’s in it, let alone that he made it.

As the title suggests, this is a riff on Don Juan, the character eternally used as a warning that pursuing sex, not love, will inevitably lead to misery. The reactionary vibe continues here, with Gordon-Levitt’s Jon an oily Garden State stereotype. Looking like a diminutive version of the Situation, he has enough sly intelligence to justify (via narration) an empty existence, devoted to working out, hanging out and making out with girls. But no physical sex is as fulfilling to him as beating it to Internet porn — even when that girl is played by Scarlett Johansson.

Like Jon — as well as his family, led by a wifebeater-clad Tony Danza — Johansson’s Barbara Sugarman is a barndoor broad caricature with a sketch comedy accent. Barbara is not only a Jersey stereotype but a female stereotype, one designed by regressive-minded men. Borrowing her romantic ideals from dumb romantic comedies, she wants Jon to become her dream man, which she does by withholding sex. If only Jon had a hot older woman — say, the pot-smoking, randy widow/grieving mom played by Julianne Moore — to teach him the difference between crap sex and making really hot love.

On one hand, it’s actually genuinely shocking — refreshing, even — where “Don Jon” winds up. On the other, it just offers a different, patronizing kind of cliche. Then again, Moore is actually terrific — the only recognizably real person in a film where every other actor acts like they’re in an “SNL” parody of “Saturday Night Fever.” (Of course, if that was the intention, they’re all terrific.) As far as recent sex addiction films go (“Shame,” “Thanks for Sharing”), it’s the thinnest and most judgmental. But when Moore storms in — more funny than fragile, with shocking reservoirs of dry wit and real sexiness — she loosens it up. It’s a happy ending of the unintended kind: “Don Jon” almost becomes a good movie.

 
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