It’s tempting to refer to Don Jon as “Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s masturbation comedy,” as some critics did when it was released. That’s a misdirect – at heart it’s a vanilla relationship story (how I might have enjoyed a good masturbation comedy.) Besides, for masturbation, Soderbergh’s got him beat: although Gordon-Levitt wrote and starred in his directing debut, he didn’t handle photography or editing.
I liked a lot about Don Jon, particularly the performances. Tony Danza is a comic surprise – no trace of sitcom mugging. Glenne Headly plays his wife, desperate to get on with becoming a grandmother (she complains that she’s got the body but nothing else yet.) The two display an easy comic rhythm that makes their scenes crackle. Scarlett Johansson is wonderful as the catch who knows it; her brilliance is in showing exactly how self-centered she is, while accusing her boyfriend of the same thing, and never showing any self-awareness. It’s her cosmology, take it or leave it; when someone does leave it, she has no idea how to recalibrate. Julianne Moore throws the balance off when she first appears, by design (she’s well cast, and Gordon-Levitt uses her intelligently.) The script poses a risk that she will come across too much the savior, and Moore fights that where a less imaginative actress might embrace it.
I enjoyed Gordon-Levitt’s central performance, and I think his script has some wit to it. Unfortunately his direction and Lauren Zuckerman’s editing don’t allow the material to breathe – they are too kinetic and distracted, rushing scenes and cutting off the jokes. I liked the observation that romantic comedies are essentially a different kind of (socially acceptable) pornography, but it’s barely allowed to sink in before Gordon-Levitt is on to the next thing. Likewise, there is a funny recurring bit where he repeatedly goes to confession for quickie absolution – it’s subversive, but the joke isn’t allowed to expand the way a more experienced director might allow it to.
What Gordon-Levitt’s protagonist is really looking for is connection, and the movie rides the tradition train into the sunset. Porn + masturbation = bad because they don’t foster connection between people. I would have preferred seeing a more cinematic argument against porn. There’s so much to choose from: lighting, acting, writing, music, etc. (Boogie Nights got those exactly right, and showed how they affected the character’s worldviews.) Don Jon isn’t a bad movie, and it has some very good parts. But it ultimately aims low and isn’t as funny or as interesting as it might have been.