One of an artist’s greatest challenges is to repeat, repeat, repeat within a piece, using that repetition not out of sloth but in a way that’s both meaningful and interesting for the audience to experience. (Just ask Philip Glass.)
It’s almost impossible to tell a story about compulsive behavior without a certain amount of repetition, and in “Don Jon,” his debut as a writer-director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (with the help of editor Lauren Zuckerman) very effectively uses similar shots over and over to portray the monomaniacal behavior of the film’s protagonist.
New Jersey knucklehead Jon (played by Gordon-Levitt) likes his bartending job, cleaning his apartment, going to the gym, picking up hot girls in nightclubs, masturbating to internet porn and confessing his sins every Sunday, allowing the cycle to begin anew. (He even combines his routines by reciting the Hail Marys and the Our Fathers proscribed by his priest while he’s doing curls and sit-ups.)
He doesn’t see a conflict between the hot girls and the internet porn, either; for him, no matter how great the real thing might ever be, watching the online women perform always gives him greater pleasure and allows Jon to lose himself in the experience, a feat he’s incapable of with a flesh-and-blood partner.
Into this routine breezes Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), whom Jon repeatedly calls “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Having obviously studied up on the latest dating guides, Barbara is too smart to give Jon what he wants right away, and she very deftly manipulates him into becoming the sort of man with whom she would want to be involved. (Over the course of one hallway dry-hump, she manages to extract promises from him to meet her friends, meet her parents and enroll in a night-school class.)
Jon seems perfectly happy with the arrangement — his mother (Glenne Headly) just wants him to get married and to make with the grandchildren, while his father (Tony Danza) heartily approves of Barbara because he’s so aroused by her — but his porn obsession gets in the way. Hiding his viewing habits from Barbara, he’s reduced to watching clips on his phone at that night-school class, where he gets busted by fellow student Esther (Julianne Moore).
The set-up (or, as Jon might think of it, the foreplay) is terrific; Gordon-Levitt gives us recognizably complicated characters with flaws as well as engaging qualities, and we want to know how the story’s going to come out. He dangles the idea that porn is to men what soft-focus rom-coms are to women (and there’s a hilariously banal fake one in “Don Jon,” featuring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum), he elicits compelling work from his actors and he makes interesting observations about family, gender, sexuality and the role of religion in everyday life.
Like many of the lead character’s sexual encounters, however, “Don Jon” finishes disappointingly. The nerve and daring in Gordon-Levitt’s script seems to dissipate as the movie lurches toward a resolution that never quite feels earned or organic. It’s one thing to have Jon make his way toward a sense of self-awareness and empathy, but the steps by which that process occurs don’t ring particularly true.
Still, for his first time behind the camera, Gordon-Levitt is already showing signs of great promise. It’s a not entirely untrue stereotype that actors-turned-filmmakers focus solely on performances, and while “Don Jon” is certainly a well-acted movie, it’s also a good-looking one.
You might not want to invite this movie up for a nightcap, but you’ll be charmed enough to ask its writer-director for a second date.