Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is writer, director and star of this mature meditation on one man's obsession with family, church and porn

As directorial debuts go, a romantic drama focusing on the leading man’s preoccupation with pornography is something of an oddity. Yet with Don Jon, the ever excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt has created a mature and surprisingly touching meditation on the troubles of the average modern male.

Gordon-Levitt has in recent years carved a niche for himself as one of Hollywood’s finest everymen. Fresh-faced, well spoken and with a safe, unthreatening charisma, he could be best described as a Tom Hanks for the iPhone generation.

Solid turns in a series of outstanding blockbusters (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper) have been augmented by equally capable leading performances in quirkier fare, from 50/50 to (500) Days of Summer.

In light of the quality of his résumé to date, the fact that Don Jon is so accomplished is both hugely impressive and fairly unsurprising. Despite its subject matter, it is neither crass nor showy, and Gordon-Levitt’s abilities as director and screenwriter shine through in one of this year’s finest mainstream films.

Nicknamed ‘the Don’ thanks to his superior ability to pick up women, Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) is an uncomplicated New Jersey guy whose short list of daily concerns underlines his status as a kind-hearted, straightforward man’s man. ‘There’s only a few things I really care about in life,’ he intones, almost immediately. 'My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn…’

That the latter category stands out is testament to how fundamental it is in Jon’s life. While his fondness for pornography isn’t necessarily something he talks about openly with his friends or family it remains – and is discussed in a discerning, matter-of-fact style – an important part of his routine.

With his Tony Soprano swagger, Jersey Shore haircut and threads – and a flashy muscle car – Jon is every inch the Italian-American stereotype, but Don Jon is a film unwilling to trade in easy clichés, and therein lies the film's real strength.

The repartee around the Martello dinner table is fantastic, with Gordon-Levitt knowingly pushing the buttons of his explosive father (Tony Danza) and clucking mother (Glenne Headly). His sister Monica, portrayed by the brilliantly uncommunicative Brie Larson, is no coddled princess. Instead, she spends every minute texting on her phone, passing silent judgment on the frequent inanity around her.

Tellingly, however, in the early stages at least, Jon is a perfect composite of his parents. He shares his mother’s old-fashioned views on marriage and mimics his father’s dress sense and physique. He berates his old man for misunderstanding TiVo while at the same time being blissfully unaware that his laptop possesses a browser history.

Refreshingly, Gordon-Levitt is uninterested in potential family strife. When it becomes clear that Jon’s new girlfriend is Jewish, that fact is swiftly brushed over. Indeed, his parents are pushy but they are also generally approving of his life choices. The central theme is not family but love.

Love is a tricky opponent, and it is made manifest by Scarlett Johansson’s Barbara Sugarman. As beautiful and sultry as you might expect, Johansson nevertheless reminds everyone here of her abilities, that have been overshadowed perhaps by her cacophonous adventures in the Marvel universe.

In a clever piece of characterisation, Barbara never actually changes. She remains slightly disengaged and obviously selfish throughout. A genuine ‘dime’, Jon is quick to overlook the fact that she is both pushy and quietly high maintenance, such is the beauty he perceives in her.

To Johansson’s credit she plays the role with subtlety and, in one unsettling scene, goes from sweet and wholesome to nasty and controlling in the blink of an eye. It is ultimately Jon’s own regard for her that evolves rather than Barbara herself.

Over all of this, Jon’s fascination with porn rests like a darkening cloud. In spite of his success with the opposite sex, he finds solace in the certainty of his undemanding virtual world. He despises regular movies for peddling unrealistic fantasies while at the same time gladly seeking refuge from life’s complications in his own brand of fantasy.

Jon’s priorities may be out of sync, but he treats his online activity with the same deference he does those other things on his list. Mercifully, it is a serious take on the subject rather than a sniggering one.

The arrival of Julianne Moore’s Esther, however, signals a change in tone. Her presence is initially anomalous, even irritating, but Moore is gifted enough to undermine any early confusion.

Her frank and playful bohemian style comes to signify a critical outside voice in Jon’s otherwise superficial, tightly constructed world. The changes in him for which she is responsible are small but significant; a new hairstyle and an amusing penchant for Marky Mark’s ‘Good Vibrations’ being the most obvious.

By the finale, Don Jon is quite a different beast from its opening. Gordon-Levitt marks himself as a worthy talent behind the camera, as well as in front of it where his layered performance is ably matched by a thoughtful script and a confident hand on the action. ‘They give awards for porn’ states Jon. They may well hand them out for this too.

Don Jon runs in Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast until November 28