Silver Screen: Don Jon *
Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t just one of the best young actors working today, he’s one of the best actors working. The range between his childhood role as an extraterrestrial teenager on sitcom Third Rock from the Sun and his indie film debut as a haunted male prostitute in Mysterious Skin is about vast as it gets. But whatever the role -- be it as a brain-addled crook in The Lookout, a singing and dancing Romeo in (Five-hundred) Days of Summer, or brooding his way into an apprenticeship with Batman-- the common factors are sly intelligence and understated charisma.
And that’s what makes the grating stupidity and overwhelming unlikability of his debut as a writer and director all that more surprising.
Don Jon has a lot more ambition than the average bad movie, and yet it’s so much worse. You’ve got to give Gordon-Levitt his due credit for the effort. Instead of leaning on his easy charm, he plays against it (at least I can only assume that’s what he is trying to do) in a character study of a shallow, simpleminded New Jersey goofball. The final effect, however, is little more than spending an hour and a half with a shallow, simpleminded New Jersey goofball. The intellectual agony of spending ninety minutes with a guy you’d go out of your way not to spend ninety seconds with in real life has to have some kind of payoff to justify the pain, yet in the end Don Jon presents a dime’s worth of insight like it was a million dollars.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Jon, nicknamed Don Jon for his ability to woo the finest club skanks on the ass-end of the Holland Tunnel. In the opening voiceover, Jon rattles off the short list of things he cares about: his car, his bachelor pad, his family, his muscles, his boys, and his girls. His boys are a couple of stooges whose defining characteristic is their worship of our homunculun hero. His girls constitute a rotation of ditzes he ranks on a one-to-ten scale before a quick hookup that he never finds as satisfying as the internet porn he obsessively surfs during his downtime.
Jon’s gleefully unexamined life is thrown off course when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), an undisputed ten who refuses to play his game. Not only does she decline to sleep with him immediately, she won’t give it up unless he meets her criteria of taking a night class, meeting her family, and forsaking internet porn. Jon complies, mostly, yet even though his life is nominally on track, he’s unhappy, and the sirens of the internet keep calling him.
Having an unlikable protagonist is one thing, but surrounding him with entirely unlikable characters is an almost insurmountable challenge. Barbara is supposed to be a temptress whose sword is double-edged, yet aside from Johansson’s astonishing looks, she’s singularly unpleasant. His doofus buddies make the Entourage toadies look like the Algonquin Round Table-- Jeremy Luke’s toadie is so insipid and desperate you’ll feel an urge to write Turtle a letter of apology. Jon’s clan of New Jersey/Italian clichés, led by a never-more heywhatsamattafuggetaboutit Tony Danza, is instantly and completely intolerable; their awkward family dinners seem modeled after similar next-to-Last Suppers familiar to a young, dancing John Travolta, but this plays more like Saturday Night Ebola.
Don Jon only briefly comes to life in scenes featuring Julianne Moore’s Esther, a depressed middle-aged woman who represents the movie’s lone trace of humanity. Her fantastically maudlin backstory only makes her improbable role as angel of redemption more inevitable, but at least she’s one character in the film who’s held a thought in her head or had a single emotion she can actually understand.
The movie’s big epiphany: Maybe internet porn four times a day is kinda sorta bad for you, emotionally, and when you have sex you should probably try to think of the other person a little bit sometimes.
Try to fuggetaboutit.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.