Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon Levitt, who also wrote and directed the film) is the kind of guy that likes few things in life: his pad, his body, his family, his bros, his car, his girl, and most importantly his porn. Despite the fact that his friends call him “Don Jon” to make fun of the suave way he goes out to clubs and picks up beautiful women on a nightly basis, he’s addicted to the feeling he gets when he’s masturbating alone at his computer at the mercy of endless porn clips that give him a sense of validation missing from his random conquests. But when he attempts to shack up with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a “dime” he tries to hook up with, she plays hard to get and escapes from his usual charms. He’s intrigued by her in a way he’s never felt before, and after setting up a date with her to lunch and a movie—seeing chick flicks is her favorite pastime and her own skewed reference point on how relationships should work—after doing some seriously desperate Facebook stalking he begins to feel stronger, more passionate potential in the one that nearly got away. He brings her to meet his family—a bickering pair played by Tony Danza and Glenne Headly as well as his mute sister, played by a dreadfully underused Brie Larsen, whose eyes are permanently glued to her phone—and soon the two become an item. That is until she catches him in a lie about his porn-watching habits.
Part of the reason why I liked Don Jon so much is because Gordon-Levitt fills the story with over the top “New Joizey” caricatures that wouldn’t be out of place on MTV’s Jersey Shore as a means to round out Jon’s lifestyle structure. The exaggerated bits overwhelm the viewer in a good way, as if they’ve just been plopped down into a foreign culture made up of muscular guidos whose contradictions and personal foibles make for hilarious character moments. For instance, every Sunday Jon proudly marches to church with his family and eagerly confesses in his thick accent his sexual sins to the priest who can do nothing but offer him monotonously ordinary penance. Gordon-Levitt attempts what has got to be the most hilarious—if not first—intellectualizations of bro behavior, yet this is where some of the reasons I disliked the film become apparent.
Johansson’s character is presented as the ideal, yet because of her petty complaints and aversion to the porn he watches that she finds obscene their, relationship sours. Jon soon finds himself with a bizarre attraction to Esther (Julianne Moore), an older fellow student at the night class where both are enrolled. At first Jon shrugs her off as annoying damaged goods, but when they share some intimate details about each other’s lives they begin to see a compassion that leads to Jon’s personal revelation about love and sex that he couldn’t find with Barbara. The plot tends to roll out these realizations in an over-simplified and convenient manner, and worst of all has a misplaced notion about trying to teach us something about the true meaning of love. Furthermore, the lesson it’s trying to impart on us is the far too obvious message that true love requires a mutual understanding and strong bond to make something that truly lasts. All the filler details surrounding that realization are the strong suit as opposed to the realization itself.
If this kind of stuff sounds too nitpicky for you then it probably is because large parts of Don Jon are enjoyably hysterical despite being somewhat didactic. The film’s belief that media oversaturation informs our attitude towards sex—be they from porn, sappy movies, or ridiculous Carl’s Jr. commercials—and the meaning of love may be self evident, but the movie is quite a crude treat, and most importantly a promising debut from actor and now screenwriter and filmmaker like Joseph Gordon-Levitt.