Don Jon: Gordon-Levitt Stars and Directs

Like other actors, the very talented thespian Joseph Gordon-Levitt also has needs to express himself as a director. The vehicle, “Don Jon,” he has chosen may not be the best to demonstrate whether he is a good or promising director, but it serves him well as an actor.

Modest in scale, but boasting strong performances all around, Don Jon is a mildly amusing satire of contemporary mores, which Gordon-Levitt and not only helmed but also wrote and stars in.

Gordon-Levitt has cast himself as a new type of screen hero, self-assured guy from New Jersey who’s obsessed with women. His answers to the name of Jon Martello but his friends nickname him Don Jon, in a nod to the mythical figure.

When Jon is not watching porn, he is observing women in various locations, but especially at his favorite local club, where the goal is to pick up as many sexy women as possible.

The life of this modern, narcissistic lothario follows a schedule, a ritualistic routine, in which his various daily activities are repeated. We observe Jon at his computer porn station, at the gym pumping iron club, at his church on Sundance with his parent, at confession, which is hoped to absolve him of his sin (too much sex and auto-eroticism), at family dinners as an obedient son.

Turning point occurs when Jon meets the sexy Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who is not easily seduced into the sack; she demands gentlemanly courtship. Jon’s addiction to the Internet appalls her and she is determined to do something about it. She also expects self-improvement via college education?

Jon (and we) know that people don’t change overnight. When Barbara finally succumbs and sleeps with Jon, he still can’t resist sneaking out of bed and jacking off, risking his first serious relationship when Barbara catches him. Would the narcissistic Jon change his mores and manners for Barbara?

As a narrative, Don Jon is too broad and too much like a TV sit-com, especially in dealing with ethnic stereotypes (the Catholic Italian-American, the smart Jewish, and so on). But the picture is likable, good-natured, and lighthearted.

Sporadically, there are poignant, even witty observations about male narcissism, addiction to the Internet and the negative effects on interpersonal communications. At times, Don Jon would rather pleasure himself while watching porn than go through the troublesome effort of dating and looking at women’s faces, especially after sex.

Religion is one of Gordon-Levitt’s successful targets. The joke is that absolution gives Jon no motivation to change, just to continue to “sin” and then confess. Moreover, when Jon finally considers his ways and is willing to change, the priest remains indifferent.

Most of the secondary characters are narrowly defined, bordering on caricatures, though they are well played by seasoned actors, who rise above the limitations of material. “Don Jon” strikes me as a movie that was joyous for all the actors concerned, and perhaps it was more fun to make than for us to watch. (It is too thin and a tad shallow as a feature-length movie)

Tony Danza is cast as the macho father, who might have influenced Jon more than the son willing to admit, and Glenn Headly is the hysterical nagging mother. The chemistry between these two actors is so strong and natural that we believe their routines during family occasions that are chores for Jon.

Brie Larson is Jon’s younger, ultra-bright sister who, just like him is addicted to the new social media; in her case it’s smartphone.

Julianne Moore shines as the older, experienced woman at Jon’s college, who tries to teach Jon a lesson or two about “real” life. Moore excels at portraying a complex femme who cries outside when no one is around, but is subtle and collected indoors.