'Don Jon': Smooth Move There, Mr. Gordon-Levitt

NPR | Sept. 27, 2013 2:17 p.m.

Contributed By:

Bob Mondello

Once a child actor on TV, then an indie sensation, then a honest-to-God movie star going head-to-head with the likes of Bruce Willis in Looper and Leo DiCaprio in Inception, Joseph Gordon-Levitt hardly needs to burnish his LinkedIn resume at this point. But that’s not kept him from adding a couple of skills — writing and directing — with his latest picture.

In the romantic comedy Don Jon, about a modern-day Lothario at large in Brooklyn — he plays Jon Martello, a guy who’d be the first to tell you he has life all figured out. Which should probably tell you something else: He’s not a deep thinker.

In voiceover at the top of the movie, Jon lists the things he really cares about: his body, his apartment, his Camaro, his family, his church, his pals, his gals, and his porn.

That last, let’s note, is not an admission that strikes Jon as particularly odd. His Brooklyn buddies have nicknamed him Don Jon, because he’s a real Don Juan with the ladies — a fresh conquest every night, lots to confess at confession.

But after sex, he’s kinda done with the encounter, while his conquests generally want to cuddle. And though he pays lip service to the notion that he might want that too, should the right girl ever come along, all that pornography offers sex without cuddling. Which truth be told, he prefers.

Then, the right girl does in fact come along: Barbara (Scarlett Johannson), who’s blonde, stacked, altogether babealicious — a perfect 10 in the eyes of his buddies, and to Jon’s consternation, as adept at playing the seduction game as he is.

Barbara won’t go to bed with him after one date, or even after one month. She insists on meeting his parents (Tony Danza and Glenn Headley, both hilarious), and gets him to take night classes so he can better his bartending job. And to his horror, she wants him to do couples stuff, like going to romantic movies (Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway, riotously coupled in a quick chick-flick parody).

But Jon, of course, likes a different sort of movie, and once he’s finally sealed the deal, and he and Barbara are more or less living together, he returns to old habits — whereupon she catches him surfing the web for porn.

These two are playing at adult relationships, but they’re not terribly grown up, and that, it turns out, is central to what Gordon-Levitt the filmmaker wants to explore here.

And he’s clearly been paying attention to more than his own lines as he’s transitioned from TV to indie dramas to big-studio blockbusters. Don Jon qualifies as an authoritative writing and directing debut — smooth, funny and with a terrific cast — not just Johannson vamping in that thick Brooklyn accent, but Headley and Danza, Brie Larson as a little sister who barely looks up from her cellphone but somehow takes in everything, and Julianne Moore, fragile and slyly funny as the one thoughtful adult among all these cartoonish types.

Gordon-Levitt keeps things riotous for the film’s first hour, and if he eases into an ending that’s a little Hollywood-standard, after having so much fun tweaking form and content, I’m guessing audiences will cut him some slack. Just as Don Jon is learning the ropes, after all, so is the guy who dreamed him up.

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