Sound logic would affirm that when someone takes on more of the risk within a project, they inherit more of the acclaim and/or the blame. Currently Joss Whedon is heralded as a directing deity not only for his visionary skills on what many claim to be the greatest superhero movie ever made with “Marvel’s The Avengers,” but also for his superpowers on the keyboard in producing the script. And as powerful as a respected writer/director is in Hollywood, there is still one breed that flies above them all, the almighty writer/director . . . and actor. The “triple threat,” as it’s called, is actually not that rare of an occurrence, the rarity is when it actually works. Just about every writer or director wears all three hats early in their career. The fast track however, is reserved for the disgustingly blessed who are additionally bestowed with a superior talent for acting. And of course good looks never hurt anyone either. With “Don Jon,” Joseph-Gordon Levitt, or JGL as the “cool-kids” are referring to him, officially submits his application to the cinematic “triple threat” department.
Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Looper”) is your stereotypical New Jersian who could immediately replace any of the characters from a famed MTV reality show. His self-proclaimed priorities in life are not unlike many young adults, no matter what sect of the country they happen to come from. There is however one priority Jon has that unbeknownst to him, would be considered extreme by 99% of the population . . . his addiction to pornography. Jon’s porn habit has jaded his expectation of women in reality to the point where he’d rather self gratify than partake in actual intimacy. When he finally meets what he thinks to be the personification of all his digital fantasies, he tries to kick the habit only to discover that his problem lies much farther than just skin deep.
If there was an actor’s version of fantasy football, JGL would easily be a top-5 pick in a standard-scoring 12-team dynasty keeper league. (For the fantasy sports impaired please disregard that last sentence and continue to read normally.) Enough cannot be expressed about the level of pure acting ability Gordon-Levitt possesses, and ironically it is this what many would consider to be an overly stereotypical portrayal of what MTV has engrained in the populous mind of a young man from New Jersey, that he is able to subdue any molecule of thought that Jon is not a believable and weighted character in the real world. One of his most useful attributes that he has showcased in recent performances is his ability to completely alter his voice; more than just a good accent, but a completely distinct vocal pattern from not only his true tone, but from each of his individual characters as well. In fact, 20 minutes into “Don Jon” it’s actually difficult to recall how Gordon-Levitt’s real voice sounds at all. This is a tool that cannot be undersold, as he may end up being the best in the business at it, further enhancing his ability to dissolve away the movie star and bring the character to the forefront.
Although this time around, being a superb thespian is not enough. JGL is on the hook for writing and directing in this film, and even though those skills are not yet up to par with his preeminent calling, it’s blindingly evident that he’s on his way to ascending to the top of those fields as well. The story writing is excellent, especially taking into account the two-dimensional subject matter. Great writers are able to wield and layer just about any topic into a world that is larger and more relevant that it deserves to be. The interplay between characters is always interesting, however sometimes the dialogue is not on the same level as the full potential of the scene or the ability of the actors. The scene set ups are also immersive and creative, playing heavily on unique angles and lighting that transforms even an unassuming hallway in a gym into a great piece of background art. Gordon-Levitt has learned heavily from the incomparable director’s like Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight Trilogy”) and Steven Spielberg (“Lincoln”) that he’s already worked with in his young career.
Along with JGL, “Don Jon” is optimally cast with Scarlett Johansson (“Marvel’s The Avengers”) as Jon’s supposed “dream girl” Barbara. Johansson surprises in this role, exhibiting a new wrinkle in her abilities as an actor, which some consider to be very good, but limited in range. It’s not that she discards her reserved yet intense style; she uses it to intentionally emit a strong sexual energy that is usually a byproduct of her previous characters instead of their main agenda. She’s also able to pull off the “jersey girl” stereotype rather well, burying her Marilyn Monroe nostalgia beneath attitude and accent.
Julianne Moore (“Crazy, Stupid Love”) is not only the wild card in the story as Esther, but she injects the film with just enough depth needed for it to be something more sophisticated than just a guy with a chronic masturbation problem. Esther is a classmate of Jon in his night school class who has a problem with privacy boundaries. She takes a liking to him for no other reason than to distract herself from the tragedies in her own life. There is a strong parallel between Moore’s character in this film and the one she had with Mark Wahlberg’s character in “Boogie Nights.” Although Esther did not put herself in the position she’s in like Amber did, she still provides the “motherly” advice to a young, naïve, oversexed man at a crossroad in his life.
Rounding out this cast, actually giving it a rather sharp edge is Tony Danza (“Who’s the Boss”). That’s right, Tony “Banta Micelli” Danza, plays Jon’s father, Jon Sr., an unapologetic, f-bomb dropping, white undershirt toting Italian dad straight from Central Casting. And he’s perfect at it. To hear the family oriented male housekeeper that helped raise Samantha and Jonathan drop expletive over expletive and have the physical demeanor to match, is worth the price of admission alone. Danza at age 62 is finally obliterating that family entertainer image that Bob Saget nuked back in the 90’s. But Saget had a stand-up comedy act at his disposal to use as a delivery system; Danza had to wait for the perfect part amongst his calls to do talk shows, soap operas and Family Channel movies.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” will never become a “Rocky,” but it’s definitely up to par with first attempts from other now established “triple threats” in Hollywood like Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade” or Jon Favreau’s “Swingers.” Whether it reaches the same “cult” status as those two films is to be determined, but it definitely exemplifies the same high quality of filmmaking and should be a virtual runway of green lights for JGL’s future endeavors.
Movie Grade: A-