A little likeability goes a long way in Hollywood, but all the goodwill in the world can’t quite save Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon (2013). Ostensibly a loose retelling of the legend of the infamous fictional libertine Don Juan, Don Jon ends up more Jersey Shore than Lord Byron. It’s far too frantic for its own good and the sense of self-satisfaction is evident throughout; there’s a lot of flash and bang for a picture that’s essentially the story of a chronic onanist who learns to love a real woman. Gordon-Levitt’s eagerness to impress is laudable, but he mistakes explicitness for edginess in this oafish, testosterone-driven bore.
The director stars as the titular Jon, a simple Jersey denizen who cares only for “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls and my porn”. He picks up women in nightclubs but is far happier with online pornography. During one night out, Jon meets his match with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a moll whose vision of romance seems to be derived from schmaltzy rom-coms. As she makes him wait before sleeping with her, Jon begins to wonder whether she could be the girl to replace his beloved blue movies. But before long, things begin to go sour, leaving him to question his whole approach to life. Don Jon is undeniably spirited and rambunctious, but brazen visual confidence masks thematic uncertainty.
Gordon-Levitt’s main problem is that he appears to actually be fond of his character, treating him as a lovable rogue who is simply in need of some guidance. However, on the evidence displayed, Jon is a complete pig. Yes, the film does attempt to demonstrate the perils of pornography addiction and its role in artificially skewing male sexuality, but it also seems to disingenuously suggest that romantic comedies are just as damaging to female expectations. In a film that’s purportedly about male stupidity, it seems more than willing to ascribe equal levels of culpability to women. Don Jon is simply too broad to make hay out of its mildly provocative premise.
It’s a debut populated almost entirely by stereotypes, including some Italian-American characters that are so exaggerated – with their white vests and elaborate gestures – that they could easily be passed off as a part of mobster Louie’s extended family on The Simpsons. So determined is the young filmmaker to show directorial identity, he gets lost in Don Jon’s energy and flair. It’s certainly pacey, but it moves so quick that it seldom pauses to think; it’s all revved up with no place to go. Gordon-Levitt has proven he has the technical panache; he will hopefully deliver a more considered film when he has less to prove.