Jon Martello, a pussy-hound bartender from Jersey, is home alone, focusing tight on his computer and energetically rubbing one out while hardcore porn images flash in front of him. It’s better than the real thing, Jon tells us in easy, breezy voice-over: “No smell. No taste.”
Welcome to sex and the single dude as we see it in life (be honest) and in Don Jon, a bruisingly funny, bracingly smart comic dare that marks a stellar feature directing and writing debut for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Jon with humor, heat and sneaky heart. It’s not that Jon doesn’t hook up with randoms. Why do you think his buds call him Don Jon? It’s just that he’s more eager to jump out of bed with a real live girl to turn on a laptop that always puts him in charge.
How did Jon get this way? How did the world? These are the hot topics that pulse through Don Jon. And don’t mistake Gordon-Levitt’s depiction of Jon’s family life for a salute to the late, unlamented Jersey Shore. For sure, Tony Danza, as Jon Sr., knows how to rock a wifebeater (who’s the boss, Tony? You are) and leer admiringly when his son brings home a “piece of ass.” But Danza’s tough, tender, nuanced performance goes deeper. Like the rest of the film. Glenne Headly excels as Jon’s mom, Angela, running a good Catholic home but using the rituals of faith, such as Mass and confession, as a substitute for communication. Jon’s sister, Monica (a terrific Brie Larson), worships at the altar of her smartphone, barely uttering a word. What’s Jon’s religion? Besides porn and his muscle car, it’s the gym body he builds as a temple to his own narcissism. You’ll laugh like hell at the antics of the Martello family, but the laughs stick in your throat.
The catalyst for change in Jon comes in the voluptuous form of Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a club babe who gets off on her own version of porn. That would be the Hollywood emo bullshit that promotes fake-ass romantic myths. At the multiplex, Jon and Barbara see a trailer for Special Someone, starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. It’s a joke, of course, meant to lampoon the genre. But the joke is on us, since the studios would bankroll crap like Special Someone tomorrow. Barbara is as addicted to fantasy as Jon. And Johansson, fearlessly tackling a role with sharp edges, is dynamite.
Battered by sexual objectification and impossible expectations, Jon turns to Esther (a subtle, splendid Julianne Moore), an older woman. Esther has secrets of her own, secrets Jon learns to respect. Redemption? Not so fast. Jon takes baby steps. Gordon-Levitt, however, takes creative leaps. As a filmmaker, he is much the same as he is as an actor: curious, provocative, eager to dig for a bone of contention rather than bury it. Gordon-Levitt won’t take safe for an answer. So Don Jon tends to stumble as it finds its feet. Still, you leave this movie feeling had at instead of had. The experience is elating.