Review: ‘Don Jon’ is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Comedic and Insightful Exploration of Modern Love

By September 27, 2013
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Joseph Gordon-Levitt made plenty of good decisions with his directorial debut, not least of which was casting Scarlett Johansson as his own love interest. (Smart!) But his shrewdest choice came after the film’s Sundance premiere, when he changed the title from Don Jon’s Addiction to just Don Jon. Not only does the word “addiction” suggest a grim, somber drama, which this decidedly is not, but that title misrepresents how important Don Jon’s compulsions are to the story. While his addiction to online pornography figures into things, it is not his (or the movie’s) defining characteristic.

What the movie actually is, is a sharply funny and insightful examination of modern love. In it, an emotionally stunted man learns that despite the technology of the 21st century, love is the same as it’s always been: a two-way street that’s more about connecting emotionally with someone than it is about rubbing your genitals against theirs. Don Jon may be filthy, but it’s downright old-fashioned in what it teaches about true love.

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Gordon-Levitt (who also wrote the original screenplay) stars as Jon, a muscle-headed New Jersey guido so notoriously successful with the ladies that his friends have nicknamed him Don Jon. The most important things in his life, he tells us in narration, are “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.” He and his “boys” regularly go out to the clubs to pick up women and to have frank discussions about the physical merits of the ladies they ogle, who are ranked on a scale of 1 to 10. Jon rarely bothers with anything less than an 8. He gets more action than anyone.

Yet there is a snag. He prefers porn-assisted masturbation to real sex. Real women aren’t as accommodating as the women in the videos, and it’s too difficult (if not impossible) to have a real-world sexual encounter that meets every one of your desires. It’s much easier to be fully satisfied when you take the other person out of the equation altogether.

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This becomes a problem when Jon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a perfect 10 and a high-maintenance Jersey girl who is repulsed by his porn habit and orders him to cease and desist. She orders him to do a lot of things, actually, including taking business classes at night school (he works as a bartender now) and introducing her to his friends and family. Jon goes along with it all. She’s more than a piece of tail. She might be — gasp — The One. Jon’s stereotypical Italian-American Jersey parents (played by Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) are ecstatic. His sister (Brie Larson), forever looking at her phone, has no comment, at least not yet.

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Jon’s porn consumption is played for laughs at first, but the laughs are eventually accompanied by winces as we realize he’s seemingly unable to break the habit. Still, the movie doesn’t veer seriously into dramatic territory. The porn is a red herring, a symbol for Jon’s unrealistic expectations of women and inaccurate understanding of what love is. It’s when he’s befriended by Esther (Julianne Moore), a night-school classmate who’s older and wiser than he is, that he starts to become enlightened.

The thick Jersey accents and Jon’s family dynamic (it’s based on shouting) are consistently entertaining. Johansson has the acting chops to turn the incredibly broad Barbara into an authentic human being, while Moore brings experience and sorrow to the strange Esther. And Gordon-Levitt proves to be as self-assured behind the camera as he is in front of it. He doesn’t try anything artistically fancy here, but he pulls off a tricky thematic feat: making a coarse, raunchy movie that has sweetness and genuine maturity at its heart.

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Eric D. Snider
Eric has been a film critic since 1999, and a beard wearer since 2008. He holds a degree in journalism and used to work in "the newspaper industry," back when that was a thing.