Don-Jon1

If you had told me a decade ago that the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun would become both a blockbuster-leading celebrity and an indie movie darling… I might have listened to you, because I have generally been an open-minded person. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s rise to fame still seems unlikely, even though the guy has charisma in spades. Now he’s continuing his creative expansion with Don Jon’s Addiction, which he both wrote and directed. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance, and was one of the biggest crowd pleasers I saw there.

Levitt plays Jon Martello, a Jersey bartender who’s a legend amongst his friends for his ability to score with any woman he sets his sights on. But he gets very little pleasure out of any of these one night stands, finding pornography to be a vastly preferable alternative to real sex. He tries to change his ways when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), whom he believes to be his dream girl. But even with her, he finds himself feeling empty, and it may take getting to know the older, wiser Esther (Julianne Moore) for him to learn how to make a satisfying human connection.

Don Jon’s Addiction is essentially about how our perceptions of what constitutes good relationships are shaped by outside influences. Jon’s warped idea of love comes from his strict Catholic upbringing, his good ol’ boy father (Tony Danza), and his obsession with porn. He’s so wrapped up in the fantasy of porn sex that real sex can’t ever measure up. Likewise, Barbara’s picture of love is formed by her devotion to Hollywood romantic comedies. The movie is all about breaking delusions and getting to know real people.

It’s ambitious stuff for Levitt’s first project, and he pulls it off mostly pretty well. There are some hiccups, though. For instance, scenes of Jon watching porn and Barbara watching rom coms are both shot the same way, with Requiem for a Dream-style quick cuts and audio/visual distortions which suggest that both forms of media act as a drug for their respective viewers. While it’s valid to suggest that cliched romance movies give people unrealistic views of love, saying that their effect is identical to that of porn’s is a strange false equivalence. It’s a wearied joke that rom coms are porn for women, and that’s what the film is saying, even if that message is unintentional (which it may be).

Also, while none of the actors are bad, most of them are laying the Jersey-ness on so thick that the movie becomes difficult to take seriously at times (including times when the audience is in fact supposed to take things seriously). Almost everyone in the story is, well, for lack of a better term, a totally stereotypical guido – Danza being the worst offender. It’s downright cartoonish at times. It’s no coincidence that the Moore’s Esther, the only major character not to have an outrageous Joisey accent and ‘tude, comes across as the most complete human being in the film.

Despite it’s tonal wonkiness and a few questionable messages, Don Jon’s Addiction is mostly a good start for Gordon-Levitt as a writer/director. He demonstrates a great visual sense, using special stylized sequences to really put the viewer inside Jon’s porn-addled brain for a while, and makes terrific use of repeating visuals to convey information about his life. It’s also very funny, and at times even touching. It’s the definition of a solidly okay film, which isn’t a bad start for Gordon-Levitt at all.