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In phe last decade, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor, and he's been so successful it's easy to forget he came of age in the '90s sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. The guy has comedy chops, and he's exercising them again in a smart new movie he wrote and directed called Don Jon.
In it, he plays a prolific seducer named Jon Martello; "Don Jon" is the nickname his pals gave him in the movie's obvious nod to Dons Juan and Giovanni. Those literary namesakes end up in hell, but for this Jon the hell is during sex. He has regular one-night stands, but he's miserable. In voiceover, he complains at length about the missionary position. He hates having to look at women's faces. He can't, he says, "lose himself." So while his conquests slumber he turns on his computer and watches porn.
Don Jon is a sex comedy — an inventive and rambunctious one. It's in the syncopated style of (500) Days of Summer, which Gordon-Levitt starred in, but it's funnier and more far-reaching. Its theme is absolutely serious: Jon's porn addiction — I'll spare you the dirty details — isn't just a quirk; it's an outgrowth of the fact that he can't truly be with a woman. Maybe it's not hell, but it's emotional purgatory.
Perhaps his ticket to a new life will be Scarlett Johansson as a woman named Barbara Sugarman. She's what his buddies call a "dime" — 10 out of 10. At a club, she dances close but won't go home with him. She won't even give him her name, so he plays detective and finds her and asks her to lunch at an outdoor cafe.
Johansson is so fast she's dizzying: She detonates every Jersey-girl diphthong. When Barbara finally gives in to Don Jon, she plays the long game, molding her man, ordering him to go back to college to rise above the "service class." But alas, he can't quit his porn habit, and when Barbara discovers it, she's repulsed. It's not just that she thinks it's for losers. It stands for a string on him she can't pull.
Based on zero inside knowledge, I'm guessing the cast of Don Jon was happy on the set. You can tell. Happy actors like to surprise and delight their fellow actors — and themselves. Julianne Moore plays the woman in Jon's college class who sobs outside class over some hidden woe and then settles into her seat and babbles with embarrassing intimacy. It's a rare chance for Moore to merge her gifts for deadpan-motormouth comedy and teary drama, and she's wonderful.
Tony Danza and Glenne Headly get a great rhythm going as Jon's parents. There's a lifetime of sitcom precision — and heart — in what Danza does. Rob Brown of Treme gives a lift to his scenes as Jon's romantic adviser, and Brie Larson has a sly cameo as Jon's sister, whose eyes are riveted to her smartphone but who turns out to have peripheral vision.
Don Jon has one subversive touch. Jon is a Catholic; he even recites the Hail Mary prayer when he's pumping iron. Every Sunday he goes to Mass with his family and takes confession, where he's absolved for his sex-related sins. But when he fights that addiction, when he changes his behavior, he's upset when there's no change in the number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers the priest commands him to say. Gordon-Levitt seems to be suggesting that Jon's weekly confession was like his other addiction — mechanical, empty — and that sex and religious rituals have no meaning when your eyes and heart are closed. Needless to say, Don Jon the movie is wide-eyed and openhearted.