"Don Jon," Joseph Gordon-Levitt's vanity project, is long on vanity

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 25, 2013

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Mr. Lover Man: Fitness-obsessed lothario Jon Martell (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes the moves on the insufferable Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) in "Don Jon."

One of the more likable emerging talents in movies right now, Joseph Gordon-Levitt somehow escaped the crucible of child sitcom stardom and studied hard at the indie academy before breaking through last year, playing second banana to Batman in The Dark Knight Rises and passing as a squinty young Bruce Willis in the time-travel thriller Looper. He’s hardly what you would call a commanding screen presence, but Gordon-Levitt brings to his performances a sly, understated intelligence that often allows him to abscond with scenes out from under the noses of his more openly demonstrative co-stars.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying it’s a terrible idea to cast this guy as the Situation. Sadder still, the idea was all his.

Written and directed by the enterprising young actor, Don Jon is a barn-door broad burlesque of Joisey stereotypes and holy-cannoli accents. Snapping gum and pulling faces as the title character, Gordon-Levitt stars as neat-freak, fitness-obsessed lothario Jon Martell, a legend in his own mind. This handsome bartender with razor-cut hair has an aversion to wearing shirts with sleeves; he’s a dimwitted pussy magnet, hooked on Internet porn. A compulsive masturbator with a penchant for flattened vowels, Jon shoots and scores most nights of the week, and then secretly retires to his living room and finishes himself off in front of the computer with a handful of Kleenex.

Once upon a time at the Sundance Film Festival, this movie was called Don Jon’s Addiction, but that presumably was too much of a downer, so the last word of the title (along with a few extra seconds of hardcore NC-17 footage) was dropped by the distributor’s marketing department. The film is now being sold as a straight rom-com, with the protagonist busting moves behind the wheel singing along to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations.”

I wonder if Gordon-Levitt has ever met an actual Italian-American—or maybe those were just people he saw on MTV reality programs. He’s got a Southern California condescension for New Jersey’s working class, playing the role dumber than a fence post and making no attempt to hide his disdain. I didn’t believe him here for a second.

Jon ranks women on a scale of one to 10, so his world is rocked upon meeting Scarlett Johansson’s bona fide “dime” Barbara Sugarman. Gordon-Levitt’s camera makes a fetishistic photo-study of the actress’ outrageous, Jessica Rabbit curves, while her performance is all noisy JAP caricature braying. Remember how hot Johansson used to seem before she started showing up on SNL doing clownish accents and carrying on like a nattering yenta? She’s never looked better and is simply insufferable.

Barbara pushes Jon to improve himself, withholding sex and demanding that he enroll in night school because she’s too prissy to date somebody in the dreaded service industry. He begrudgingly obliges, while still secretly retiring to his living room to get a fix from PornHub.com. I suppose there’s probably a movie to be made, or at least an essay to be written, about how easy access to pornography on the Internet has warped young men’s minds into considering women as receptacles. Unfortunately, this isn’t that movie.

Constructed as a recurring series of rituals with identical camera setups and running visual gags that get tired awfully quickly, Don Jon hinges upon the title character’s Sundays. After long nights at the club, there’s always morning Mass and a quick confession, followed by goofball Sunday dinners with the family, devouring vast quantities of pasta in front of the football game in their undershirts.

Tony Danza, of all people, plays Jon’s dad, rocking a wife-beater and barking caveman approval of his son’s new “piece of ass” girlfriend. As Jon’s eye-rolling  younger sister, Short Term 12’s brilliant Brie Larson approaches these cartoon sequences in the correct spirit, never once looking up from her smartphone. Every meal in this household is the best scene from Saturday Night Fever drawn in crayon.

It turns out Don Jon’s addiction isn’t even that difficult to cure. At night school, he meets a sad-eyed fellow student (Julianne Moore) who won’t let him off the hook for spending classes watching porn on his iPhone. This sensitive older woman takes a pause from wallowing in her tragic backstory to teach Jon the difference between fucking and making love, and he’s magically healed of all pathologies once he learns to look into her eyes during orgasm instead of finishing in his hand.

Moore is actually quite good in this movie, the only performer asked to play a person instead of a sketch comedy refugee. She’s an awfully sexy lady, despite being saddled with a Screenwriting 101 penchant for crying jags.

Like most current indies, Don Jon is curiously devoid of subplots and struggles to barely crawl across the 90-minute mark. It’s a silly vanity project from a young talent who should know better. 

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