Because Joseph Gordon-Levitt has forged a reputation for smarter-than-average movies—the action blockbuster Inception, the time-travel drama Looper, and the bittersweet romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer —I expected his feature directorial debut to show this kind of intelligence and insight on some level. But unfortunately, just like the shallow lug the movie is named for Don Jon has little going on beneath the surface.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Don Jon, a New Jersey playboy who tells us in voiceover about the loves of his life: family, friends, his home, his body, hooking up, his church, and porn. Don Jon’s life is shown as a regiment of weeks. We’re told he works as a bartender, but we never see him actually working. Instead, we see him at the clubs on Saturday nights, rating women on a scale of 1-10 with his similarly sleazy friends. If a woman is lucky enough to be deemed an 8 or higher, Don Jon will throw himself at her and then in her. And then he’ll go to his computer to find porn—which he finds more satisfying than “real pussy”—and goes back to bed. Sunday comes, and Jon drives to church in his muscle car while road raging at unseen assholes who clearly are “retarded.” After mass with his family, he confesses to his various sexual sins, which regularly includes masturbation to porn in double-digit figures. After a family dinner where he groans at his mother, screams at his father and ignores his sister’s existence completely, he goes to the gym to do his penance of prayers while working out.
It’s a risky move to make your protagonist so openly repulsive. And to his credit, Gordon-Levitt is surprisingly convincing as a Jersey guido with slicked back hair and V-necks so thin they seem like women’s clothes. However, Don Jon’s journey is so predictable and frankly dumb that it’s hard to get invested in this lunk-headed anti-hero. The plot kicks into gear when Don Jon meets Barbara; played by a gum-snapping Scarlett Johansson she is of course a 10. But this girl who loves romance movies won’t give it up after a few drinks and making out on a club couch, so Don Jon hunts her down via Facebook and opts for “the long game” which most of us would call dating. Predictably, Barbara catches onto Don Jon’s chronic porn consumption and declares him disgusting, forcing the sex-obsessed douchebag to re-evaluate why he prefers porn to real sex to begin with. What follows plays out like some sort of afterschool special for the emotionally disabled, or a Cosmo article come to life.
Did you know men like porn? Women like romance movies? And both of these things can foster an idea of sex/love that is damagingly unrealistic? These clichés are meant to make Don Jon and Barbara look like they are on opposite sides of the same coin. But even if Barbara was shown to watch romance movies on the obsessive level Don Jon is shown watching porn (she’s not) this is not the couple’s major issue. It’s that their relationship is hideous. He wants her for sex and only introduces her to his family and friends because she manipulates him to do so with the promise of sex. She seems to only like him in so far as he does whatever she says. This is obvious after a date early on where she grinds herself into him as they kiss goodnight and essentially gives him a list of demands. However, it takes weeks and his sister finally speaking up to make Don Jon realize this with a startled expression so earnest it should have an anime exclamation point over it.
Aside from these dated gender roles that declare women don’t watch porn and men only use romance as a tool for sex, there’s a painful misuse of the cast. As Barbara is a one-note tease with little to do beyond be sexy and pout, Johansson seems cast mostly for her bodacious body than her acting skills. Tony Danza and Glenne Headly are practically cartoon characters as Don Jon’s parents, one endlessly screaming about football and respect as the veins in his neck bulge out the collar of his wife-beater tank top, the other tirelessly tittering on about when her son might meet that perfect girl and start giving her grandchildren already. Brie Larson, who delivers one of the best performances of the year in Short Term 12, is effectively reduced to Silent Bob here, as she is the sister who is always texting and is practically invisible to her family until her aforementioned moment of clarity. All around it’s a wasted opportunity.
Only Julianne Moore seems to overcome the script’s shortcomings, creating a compelling character out of the quirky older woman role shoved into the film to give Don Jon an opportunity for introspection. Named Esther, this woman is a crying mess when Don Jon meets her, trying desperately to avoid her while squirming through the doorway she’s blocking. But her earnest efforts to make a connection with this hardheaded doofus is strangely endearing, emphasizing how alone she must be to try to just chat with someone like him. Their relationship becomes key to his change in the film, but like all that’s come before it’s too expected to be terribly interesting.
Obviously, I was disappointed with Don Jon. While its protagonist thinks his biggest faults are all the pre-marital sex he’s having, his bigger issue is how oblivious he is in his relationships with everyone and everything he claims to love. He’s a vile user. He says he loves his family, but 80% of their shared screentime is spent screaming at each other the same way he bellows at any driver unfortunate enough to cross his path on the way to church. He treats his penance as a way to count off gym sets, making what is meant to be ardent regret into a system to fuel his vanity. He treats his friends as an entourage, endlessly mocking their own taste and skills at getting girls. And then of course he essentially views women as tits, ass, and pussy who aren’t as satisfying to fuck as his own hand. But an unlikeable character need not make a movie as deeply unsatisfying as this. Don Jon is overrun by clichés about sex, gender roles, and romance, making it downright dull despite how many clips of wet-mouthed bare-chested porn actresses are flashed throughout. It’s actually shocking a movie with this much sex is such a turn-off.