The title character in Don Jon is a big fan of his routine. An image conscious guy in his late twenties, he goes to the gym, to his bartending job, to the clubs, to church, to confession, to Sunday dinners with his family. He projects confidence and swagger that’s too good to be true. In fact, it is. He never really connects with another person, chasing women with his friends every night, but finding more enjoyment in seeing pictures of women online. They, after all, never ask anything of him. His approach to relationships is so simplistic and one-sided you know from frame one the movie is going to be about finding Jon a new, healthier way of approaching the world. That Jon is so confident in his delusions and superficial understandings of the way the world works makes him not pitiable, but somehow worth cheering for. I wanted him to improve and find true happiness. He’s just that charming.
Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jon is a fun character to spend 90 minutes with as he slowly makes his way towards a better view of the world (and the women) around him. Gordon-Levitt also writes and directs, making Don Jon a one-man show of sorts. But instead of the movie becoming a tired case of a talented actor taking on too much in an attempt to create a vanity project, he has instead made a fairly generous movie that’s willing to throw attention to welcome supporting parts. He gave himself a fun part to play, but also provided his game cast of talented and sometimes underutilized performers nice little turns of their own. As his parents, Tony Danza and Glenne Headly commit to charmingly broad stereotypes of New Jersey Irish Americans, cooking up pasta and wondering when he’ll find a nice girl and settle down. His younger sister is played by Brie Larson in a largely silent performance that’s nonetheless full of personality. The scenes of the family together are full of charm.
Elsewhere, the plot’s main turns hinge on Jon’s relationships with women. The first is a supremely attractive good girl he meets while clubbing. She’s easily a 10, he tells his buddies as he sets out to play “the long game” to get her, sending her a Facebook message and inviting her to coffee. You know, starting slow. She’s played by Scarlett Johansson as a woman who is used to getting what she wants. And what she wants now is Jon, on her own terms and at her own pace. Even though she’s gorgeous and he’s over the moon to be dating her, he finds he can’t stay away from all those pretty girls whose images are only a click away. Rapid-fire montage of Pavlovian computer noises – the Apple startup tone becoming a call to action of sorts – takes us inside Jon’s addictive need for what’s on the other end of that googling.
Part character study, part romantic comedy, both slide sideways into an addiction/recovery dramedy that threatens to turn purely judgmental before pulling back into something a tad more reasonable. His addiction to pornography intersects with and eventually derails his perfect compartmentalized routines, forcing him to take a good look at his understanding of women and images thereof. It’s ultimately a kinder more compassionate film than you might initially think. The problem is not that he likes images of naked women; it’s that he’s lost all perspective about what those images mean. It’s not about perfecting a disciplined routine, but knowing when it’s healthiest to break from it. It’s not about objectification so much as it is about moving past initial appearances. It’s not that he’s a bad person. He simply needs to learn how to interact with actual women. To paraphrase actual dialogue, he needs to truly lose himself in another person and let that person get lost in him.
At a night class he meets a woman who helps him understand all of the above. She’s played by Julianne Moore in a decent performance that’s dedicated to enlivening a character who is purely a plot point personified. That’s too bad, and too convenient, but every character, from Don Jon on down exists here to be nothing more than vivid sketch characters of broad impact and light tone. It handles some strong material with a light hand, drawing swift cultural observation (note Jon’s perspective on rom-coms) with a wink and a grin. Gordon-Levitt’s writing and directing exhibits so much of the charm, confidence, and swagger of his character that the movie’s a largely enjoyable experience. It’s a charismatic debut feature, one that shows he’s certainly a promising talent on both sides of the camera.