Based on zero inside knowledge, I’m guessing the cast of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directing debut, Don Jon, was crazy happy on set. You can tell. Happy actors do it not just for themselves but also for their co-stars and director (in this case their co-star): They’re like musicians trying to make one another’s mouths drop. The movie is a broad ethnic comedy, but there’s nothing broad about the wicked-smart way it’s executed. Even long-played-out stereotypes take on new life. Don Jon suggests the reason for Guidos acting like Guidos and JAPS like JAPS: It’s their existential comfort zone. And it’s easier than opening themselves up.
Gordon-Levitt plays the compulsive seducer Jon Martello, dubbed “Don Jon” by his friends in a nod to Dons Juan and Giovanni. But his hell doesn’t arrive with a statue. It’s right there in the sex act. In voice-over, the modern Don Juan complains about the missionary position and having to look at women’s faces. Giving nether-region pleasure is his worst nightmare. While his latest conquests slumber, he turns on his computer and jacks off to porn: It’s the only way, he says, he can “lose himself.” One night at a club, he spies Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a ten-out-of-ten, but she won’t go home with him. She makes him woo her, go back to college, and prove he can rise above the service class. And he’s surprised at how much he likes playing “the long game” and showing her off to envious friends and family. But he still can’t quit that Internet porn.
Gordon-Levitt came of age in 3rd Rock From the Sun, and there’s a sitcom residue here in the way his features freeze into a mask of cockiness or mock-dismay. But then he’ll relax his face and look human: tension, release; mugging, being. Each actor has his or her own attack. Scar-Jo is dizzyingly fast: She detonates every Jersey diphthong. Her gum-cracking Barbara is gorgeous and terrifying. She likes sex, but she’s playing the long game, too, molding her man, topping from the bottom. The idea that he’d turn to the Internet revolts her. Porn is not just for losers. It also stands for a string she can’t pull.
Julianne Moore plays the woman in Jon’s college who sobs outside and then settles in and babbles with dismaying intimacy. This is a rare chance for Moore to merge her gifts for deadpan-motormouth comedy (à la The Big Lebowski) and teary-tremulous drama (à la everything else). Tony Danza and Glenne Headly get a great rhythm going as Jon’s parents, their patter as practiced as this couple’s way of life. (There’s a lifetime of sitcom precision — and heart — in Danza’s performance.) Rob Brown (of Treme) gives a lift to his scenes as Jon’s most thoughtful critic. Brie Larson has a slyly funny cameo as Jon’s sister, whose eyes are riveted to her smartphone. The question hangs: How much peripheral vision does she have?
Gordon-Levitt learned much from the staccato slickness of (500) Days of Summer, but fast doesn’t mean shallow. He’s brilliantly subversive on Catholicism. Jon rattles off his Hail Marys while pumping iron — it’s a narcissistic ritual. Every Sunday, he goes to Mass with his family and takes confession, tidily absolved for wanking and sex out of wedlock. But autopilot absolution gives him no impetus to change, and when he does, his God (via his priest) is indifferent. In Don Jon, religion doesn’t simply allow you to function with your eyes and heart closed — it benefits from tunnel vision. It’s another form of masturbation.
This review originally ran in the Sept. 30 issue of New York magazine.