“Don Jon” might be the first commercial American movie to tackle the subject of online porn: its ubiquity; how it affects the way men think about women, sex, and intimacy; how an emotionally inexperienced guy might consider it preferable to the real thing. The fact that the movie’s a sprightly, if pointed, romantic comedy shouldn’t put you off, nor should the fact that it’s written and directed by its star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the most adorable leading man of his generation. (A tad over-directed, actually, but it’s the kid’s first time, cut him a break.) The movie’s not exactly “(500) Days of Foreplay,” but neither is it an earnest lecture like the recent “Thanks for Sharing.” What “Don Jon” is, surprisingly, is honest. R-rating aside, it should be required viewing for every 15-year-old boy on the planet.
And, yes, it goes heavy on the Guido-isms. The setting is the New Jersey of “Jersey Shore,” where Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) reigns as a ladykiller supreme at the local nightclubs. His friends (Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke) call him “Don Jon,” because he never scores a girl who’s below an 8. He’s smooth, he’s funny, he takes them home, to bed, to the moon — and after they’re asleep, he logs on for the action that really makes him “lose himself.” The Windows start-up chime is a recurrent motif in “Don Jon”: Initially comic, it comes to sound like the Chord of Doom.
“Don Jon” sketches in the hero’s contentedly circumscribed life — his immaculate apartment, the confession booth where he tells the priest everything, the gym where he works off his Hail Marys — and then introduces Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a Jersey girl who’s like a vision out of a Fountains of Wayne song: gorgeous and with a heart made of gravel. For a while, “Don Jon” looks like it’s preparing to settle down, like its hero, into a predictable course of romantic bliss and life lessons, but Gordon-Levitt’s script doesn’t let Jon off quite that easy. He’s an addict, after all.
It’s tempting to dismiss “Don Jon” as a warmed-over “Saturday Night Fever” — with the horizontal mambo replacing the vertical kind — and if the cast fills out the stereotypes with an energy that’s infectious, the clichés ultimately seem more limiting than liberating. (That includes Tony Danza in a wife-beater as the hero’s dimly macho father, and Glenne Headly, channeling Edith Bunker, as his mom.)
But with the introduction of Esther (Julianne Moore), a bohemian older student in Jon’s night-school class, the movie’s horizons begin to expand along with his. In some of this (notably the reasons for Esther’s occasional crying jags) you feel a novice filmmaker’s invention, and I don’t think I buy all the places this relationship goes. Still, Moore’s character provides the excuse for Jon and “Don Jon” to hear about desire and sex — and, yes, porn — from an articulate and sensual woman’s point of view. And that is liberating.
Gordon-Levitt is savvy, as well, about our modern mediated culture: The TV screens braying in every room, the ads that use swimsuit models to sell hamburgers, the smartphone from which Jon’s sister (Brie Larson) never lifts her eyes unless absolutely necessary. Who can blame Jon for choosing the clickable fantasy over messy reality? Who wants to risk being seen when you can just watch? It’s only when you consider an entire generation of Don Jons that the urgency beneath this slickly clever story becomes apparent. Gordon-Levitt is actually proposing something revolutionary here. He wants to take sex out of the head and bring it back into bed.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.