Through all his years in acting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has clearly been paying attention to the filmmaking process. How else to explain his remarkable directorial debut Don Jon? Featuring a dynamic energy, stunning control, and strong performances, Gordon-Levitt (who also wrote the screenplay) has a lot to say and conveys it well. Showing few (if any) jitters in these roles, his is easily one of the best first films by a contemporary performer, topping George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and possibly Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone.
Completing the trifecta, this jack-of-all-trades stars as Jon, a 30-ish New Jersey bartender with a knack for pulling the hottest woman in the room on any given night. Wasting no time, on the heels of a stylized, confident opening that introduces Jon’s life and the important things in it, Gordon-Levitt then amplifies these elements to cement the routine-heavy cycle to which Jon has ingrained himself. Through impressive continuity, the director employs the same shot composition for Jon’s weekly church visit (the drive there; his walk up the steps; a view of the steeple; and his confession booth exchange) and his near daily strut down the gym hallway, past the basketball court to the weight room (where he says his Hail Marys and Our Fathers while pumping iron). Not nearly as tedious as that approach may sound, the brilliance of this consistency is that it’s tucked between more inventive, loose cinematography, and when the reproductions begin to overlap, their subtle point organically comes to light.
Jon’s pattern grows almost robotic, however, when it comes to his operating at the choice bar of him and his buddies Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke). Not only are the spots he frequents inside the bar essentially marked territory and the shots of each respective locale identical, but so are Nathan Johnson’s hip-hop musical cues and what Jon does at each juncture with that night’s catch. The regularity continues once he brings the girl home, with Jon adding post-coital commentary over clips of what’s essentially a sexual checklist. That he makes these observations from another defined camera set-up, behind his MacBook while viewing and satisfying himself to the porn to which he claims the real thing cannot compete, is cause for true concern and sets the stage for the life-altering events that follow.
These concrete habits show signs of cracking once Jon meets the lovely Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson). Though Jon sees a future with his new lady and begins certain behavioral shifts, Gordon-Levitt, in perhaps his most ambitious statement, is critical of what each partner represents. Jon is an easy target, the product of a society overexposed to sex in the media, of which his porn addiction is the next step, and not all that big of a leap from the commercials on TV. (Don Jon’s opening montage of risqué clips from music videos and talk shows hits that point home exceedingly well.)
By contrast, Barbara is the product of stereotypical romantic comedies (brought to wonderfully sudsy life through fake movies starring Anne Hathaway, Channing Tatum, Meagan Goode, and Cuba Gooding Jr.) and a Hallmark version of love, taken to an extreme with a bossy control over her man. While it’s healthy for her to make Jon wait for sex (“We barely know each other”) and require that they meet one another’s friends and parents, certain unrealistic yet sincere musings point to deep-rooted problems not as removed from Jon’s own romantic issues as they may initially seem.
In addition to this clash of perspectives, Jon has an extra routine with his family. Sitting around the dining room table, he and Jon Sr. (Tony Danza) wear matching white tank tops, his sister Monica (Brie Larson) focuses on the smart phone glued to her palm, and his mother Angela (Glenne Headly) insists that Jon get married and start a family. When he’s presented with a different option from older, wiser community college classmate Esther (Julianne Moore), the breath of fresh air just about knocks the gel out of Jon’s hair and takes the story to unexpected new heights.
Balancing these views of love and life, Gordon-Levitt conducts each detail of his film with winning humor, sexiness, and brains to spare. It’s an all-star effort from the renaissance man and a strong sign of more great things to come.
Rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use.
Don Jon is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.