Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s film, Don Jon, is an edgy, quirky, sometimes simplistic, but often charming comedy about a young Jersey man’s quest to experience meaningful intimacy and love.
Gordon-Levitt, who writes, directs, and stars, has created a role tailored to his offbeat charisma. His Jon Martello is a tough talking, prototypical working class macho Italian-American, Catholic youth whose life is circumscribed by his family, his church, his modest ambitions – he is content to be a bartender – and his consuming passion for porn. That is, until he meets two very different women who help him, each in her own way, to understand the possibilities of real love and fulfillment.
Gordon-Levitt’s screenplay is repetitive by design, emphasizing the essential emptiness of Jon’s emotional life. The heart of the story is played out in a series of encounters between Jon and Barbara and Jon and Esther, and here, as well as in the scenes with Jon’s family and his priest, it is the pitch-perfect dialogue which lends verisimilitude and bite to the tale. In a grittier version of Goodbye Columbus, Gordon-Levitt creates an outsider who, despite his rough edges, retains an innocent charm.
His performance is quietly narcissistic, gently tough and street-wise, and remarkably vulnerable. Scarlett Johansson makes Barbara Sugarman – his “Let’s say she’s not Italian” girlfriend a sexy, flinty, hard as nails urban princess. In contrast, Julianne Moore’s Esther is a flaky but empathetic widow whose own vulnerability helps transform Jon. As Jon’s stereotypical, yet amusing suburban Italian-American family, Tony Danza is a loud-mouthed, blustering father; Glenne Headley a hovering, smothering mother; and Brie Larson his sullen, glassy-eyed sister, who makes her single spoken outburst count for all its worth.
As a feature-film directorial and screenwriting debut, Don Jon is promising. Gordon-Levitt strikes a persuasive balance between satire and sincerity, profanity and sweet honesty. Within the parameters of a Hollywood romantic comedy, he manages to create characters about whom we care and a story that ultimately touches.