'Don Jon': Gordon-Levitt's directing debut needs more practice
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The multi-talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes his screenwriting and directing debut in the sexually frank romantic comedy "Don Jon," also playing the title role of a New Jersey mook whose addiction to porn prevents him from experiencing true love.
In a quick-cutting intro, Jon, in voice-over, tells us about the things he cares about, which includes his car (a very impressive Super Chevy), his apartment (which he likes neat), his physique (which he keeps buff), and his family, God, real girls and, yes, porn, which is seen in quick-cut montages taken from actual adult material. He explains, in quite graphic detail, why the erotic utopias depicted in porn are better than the genuine human negotiations of actual sex with actual people. Then, of course, his perfect lifestyle system (which also of course includes regular visits to the Catholic confessional, each one depicted with the same sequence of shots, for maximum "comic" effect) is upended by a ravishingly gorgeous girl (Scarlett Johansson) who doesn't put out as quickly as the usual mookesses whom Jon picks up on an average weekend, and whose varied demands have the man his pals call "The Don" making some substantial sacrifices. (Heck, she even objects to the fact that he does his own housecleaning. Yeesh.)
The scenes in which Jon "enjoys" Sunday dinner with his family (uber mook Tony Danza, Glenne Headly and, in the movie's only really effective comic performance, Brie Larson) are so broad and patronizing in their depiction of Jersey lumpen proletarianism that they make "Silver Linings Playbook" look as nuanced as "Bicycle Thieves." This is hardly the only area of representation in which Gordon-Levitt displays an almost cringe-worthy overreach. While the movie's heart is in something like what you might call the right place, it can never really settle on whether it wants to be a burlesque of the types it's depicting or a genuine character study. The movie starts to tilt toward the latter when Jon, encouraged to take a night class by the eventually-revealed-as-opportunistic Johansson character, strikes up a reluctant friendship with an older and seemingly grief-stricken classmate played by Julianne Moore. Eventually, with the help of some emotional jolts, Jon begins to yearn for the ideal of becoming "lost in another person," and seeking this in ways he never imagined he would.
Which is all very admirable in the abstract, but there's so much lacking in the execution: the direction that's both showy and utterly insufficient in terms of setting plausible environments, the acting-with-accents by most of the cast (even Danza, who's authentically "street" in some sense, sounds like he researched his role via auditing episodes of "Jersey Shore"), the rather opportunistic deployment of the porno clips, et cetera. Gordon-Levitt's character may navigate the forking paths of online erotica with a sure hand, but as a filmmaker he needs more practice, and more solitary practice.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.