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don jon posterI was fortunate enough to get to stay for the closing night gala at the Indianapolis International Film Festival presentation of Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s writing and directing debut, Don Jon. I have been a very big fan of JGL since Brick and Mysterious Skin so I was quite curious to see what chops he brings to the writing/directing game and he didn’t disappoint.

Don Jon is about Jon Martello (also played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a bartender from Jersey, who fits the the play on the name of Don Juan (pick your reference – Byron, Mozart, Molière, or Zorrilla) in the title of the film quite nicely. Jon is a pretty simple guy. There’s only a few things he really cares about:

His body,

don jon - body

his pad,

don jon pad

his ride,

don jon - car

his family,

don jon - family 2

his church,

don jon - church

his boys,

don jon - boys

his girls,

don jon - barbara and jon

…and his porn.

don jon - porn

A lothario of some renown, he takes a different girl home every weekend living a bachelor’s dream. But as nice as it is for him to be so successful with the ladies, the sex he gets from them can’t compare to the pleasure he gets from watching porn online. With porn, whatever inhibitions the ladies he brings home have, are gone. He can find whatever he wants, whenever he wants. So while the actual physical presence of the women is nice for him, it’s unnecessary as they can’t compete with the idealized fantasies he is able to create by watching porn. That is until he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson).

Barbara, the girl of his dreams?

Barbara, the girl of his dreams?

After hooking up briefly in the bar, she plays hard to get. But she’s gotten under Jon’s skin and he can’t shake her. So after cyber-stalking her, he finds her number and asks her out. When they meet again for lunch, Jon turns on the charm full blast like only those Jersey boys can, and of course Barbara is taken with him. So they begin a whirlwind romance. She is withholding on the sexual front, which is killing Jon. She has the upper hand in every facet of the relationship because of this. But he still has his porn…until Barbara catches him watching it post-coitus. While he is able to play it off like it was something that one of his friends sent him, he is issued a warning – if she catches him watching porn again, it’s all over between them. “Only losers watch porn. It’s disgusting.”

So, because he thinks he’s finally in love, he doesn’t watch. Every week, like a good Catholic, he attends church and confesses his sins which are quite humorous as they give a frank account of his sexual habits (I had sex out of wedlock twice and masturbated 33 times…). As their relationship progresses, Barbara inserts herself into every facet of his life. Jon is forced to bring his friends out on double dates with her and her friends if he wants to see them, she tells him he’s too good to clean his own apartment and he needs to get a maid after refusing to let him buy Swiffer pads, and she enrolls him in a management night course so he can make more of himself professionally than just being a bartender. So he goes from fun-loving lothario to pussy-whipped wuss in about 60 seconds. But he thinks it’s all worth it.

But in his night course, he meets a woman named Esther (Julianne Moore) who is unhinged, who goes from crying to falling asleep in class to busting him watching porn on his phone. And a tentative friendship forms between the two, one that evolves over the course of the film.

Jon and Esther.

Jon and Esther.

So when Barbara inadvertently (yeah, right) discover Jon’s browser history on his computer, she drops his ass like third period French. Leaving Jon to wonder what the hell he did wrong. So as he tries incessantly to get Barbara to speak to him so he can wiggle his way back into her good graces, she slips further and further away. His parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) are severely disappointed as they both loved Barbara albeit for different reasons (take a guess why Jon Sr. loved Barbara…). This is where his relationship with Esther starts blossoming. After class one night they get high and end up fucking in her jeep. This happens again when they skip class the next week. But what’s different is he finds out she lost her husband and son in a care accident 18 months prior and she too is trying to figure shit out. So as Jon tries to get closure with Barbara, his relationship with Esther amps up and he finds what he was looking for all along in the person least likely.

Jon Sr. and Jon Jr.: two generations of Jersey men.

Jon Sr. and Jon Jr.: two generations of Jersey men.

I’ve just given the broad strokes (pun intended) of this film as I really think some of the more intimate moments of the film need to be experienced rather than explained. As I said above, Gordon-Levitt did a really nice job with this film. His focus on Jon’s family dynamics was quite hilarious. I’m not sure the family members could have been better cast, Glenne Headly most of all as the hysterical mother who only wants the best for her boy (and hoping that he provides her with grandchildren). I must admit, casting Tony Danza was a stroke of genius. He is spot-on as Jon Sr., a gruff, blue collar guy whose tough love rubs his son the wrong way. I love Brie Larson in the role of Monica, Jon’s sister. Her Silent Bob-esque line explaining why Jon was better off that Barbara dumped might have been the highlight of the film, which says a lot because there is so much to like in this film.

Gordon-Levitt was able to inject enough humor into the script that even the heavy parts, of which there are a few, are nicely balanced so the film doesn’t tip too much in favor of a gross out sex comedy or a heavy existential crisis drama, which it could have done quite easily either way. The argument between Jon and Barbara about how porn and romantic comedies are and are not anything alike is hilarious. That Barbara was living out the same fantasies in romantic comedies that Jon was through porn was a great point, although it’s not specifically voiced in the film. Both areas of entertainment are equal parts fabrication, but one is far more of a socially accepted practice that those who instill any kind of belief that what they are seeing is real or capable of happening are just as delusional as those who constantly watch porn and believe those scenarios actually happen. I know, I know, Penthouse Letters publishes these “real” stories all the time…

Nonetheless, Gordon-Levitt in his first feature was able to bring a topical subject to light in a fresh manner that is exceedingly engaging, funny and with impact. Scarlett Johansson as a gum-smacking, thick accented Jersey guidette is fun to watch even though I loathed her character more in each successive scene in which she appeared. And that’s good because this film gives you a visceral response, one you might not expect going into it. Yes, it’s funny. One can see that from the trailer. But it’s the other emotions that are intertwined that perhaps leave the strongest impression.

Well played, Mr. Levitt. I sincerely hope that you are able to capitalize on not only your talent as an actor (which is considerable) but also on what I hope is tremendous success with this film and create more of the same quality.

Here’s the trailer: