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It’s always a dicey proposition when a beloved actor decides to makes his/her mark behind the camera. On one hand, who could possibly understand the methods and motivations necessary to elicit the best performances from actors than a fellow treader of the boards? There’s a special skill to directing actors, a skill that becomes even more impressive when one begins to take note of the numerous films, popular and otherwise, that feature serviceable (at best) acting. The modern Hollywood mode appears to be to distract from any basic flaws (storytelling, script, acting) by focusing on the showier, punchier details (special effects, fast-paced editing, bigger, better and louder everything). When a career actor throws his/her hat onto the directing chair, we usually (but not always) get films that focus on the characters and acting: a quick look through Clint Eastwood’s exemplary resume gives a good example of this. When current golden boy Joseph Gordon-Levitt made his directing/writing debut with Don Jon, a fairly modest little film about a porn-obsessed, body-building, mook looking for love in all the wrong places, I was hoping he would bring the same deft touch behind the scenes that he normally does before them. For the most part, JGL delivers the goods, even if the final result ends up being a little more “same-old-same-old” than I’d hoped.

A montage of highly sexualized female images from film, TV, cartoons and the internet jumps us head-first into JGL’s story about porn-addicted guys and the women who (try to) love them. A voice-over introduces us to the titular hero, one Jon Martello (JGL) who appears to have only four interests in life: masturbating to internet porn, picking up and screwing any living thing with lady parts, cleaning his house and lifting weights. That, as Porky Pig would stammer, is all folks. Frequent super-flashy cut-scenes and montages lay out Jon’s personal philosophy pretty clearly: real girls are great but they ain’t the real thing. You see, everything about porn is cooler to Jon than the actual act of sex: the positions are better, the people are hotter, the angles are better and nobody makes goofy “O” faces. Jon may pick up and bang a new club hottie every night but he always finishes the evening by slipping away from his snoozing conquest and spending a little one-on-one time with his fave XXX sites. As we come to see in pretty short order, Jon is obsessed with the ideal of everything over the reality: ideal sex, ideal body, ideal house, ideal everything. Real life, when compared to the air-brushed perfection of fantasy, just doesn’t rev Jon’s engine, as it were.

All of this, supposedly, changes when Jon lays eyes on Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) in the club. She’s a “ten” in his book, even though his friends proclaim her to be “long game”: she’s way too “classy” for Jon and he ain’t getting her in the sack anytime soon. Not to worry, of course, because Jon has a little way to help keep his mind off of Barbara’s naughty parts. For a while, this seems like the best of both worlds, to Jon: he gets to romance Barbara as slow as she’d like while still indulging in his own pleasure on the side. Regular visits to the confessional help keep his conscience scrubbed clean (Hail Marys are all-purpose cleaners, it turns out) and Barbara even begins to insinuate herself into the rest of Jon’s life, getting him to enroll in night school and bring her home to meet his folks (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly). Thing’s just get better when Barbara decides that it’s finally time to take it all the way. Jon is thrilled but the sex ends up being just as unfulfilling as ever and he sneaks back to his laptop while Barbara snoozes. She ends up catching him in mid-act, however, which prompts a massive blow-up and promise from Jon that this was all a misunderstanding.

As Jon denies himself the self-gratification that he’s always relied on, however, he finds the rest of his life beginning to fall apart: he’s always pissed off, for one thing, which culminates in a nifty bit of road rage where he puts his fist through a car window. Big Jon may be trying to walk the straight and narrow but Lil’ Jon is the one who calls the shots and, in time, it’s inevitable that the whole flimsy structure will fall to the ground. After Jon learns about browser histories the hard way, he sets out on a journey of self-exploration that eventually leads to Esther (Julianne Moore), the older, philosophical, sexually-secure student in his night class who’s been interested in him for some time. In time, Jon will learn that sex without an emotional connection is just as empty as the internet porn he’s addicted to, forcing him to make some hard decisions. As Blink-182 once said: I guess this is growing up.

As a feature-film debut, Don Jon hits most of the right notes. The acting, as expected, is top-notch, with Tony Danza being a particular stand-out as Jon’s ultra-mook father, Jon, Sr. I’ve never been a fan of Scarlett Johansson, finding her to easily be one of the most irritating, over-rated non-actors in the business but I admit to really enjoying her as Barbara Sugarman. There’s an honesty and vulnerability to her performance that I’ve found lacking in everything else I’ve ever seen her in (with the possible exception of Lost in Translation) and it really helps to shore up the film’s (occasional) emotional disconnect. As always, JGL is a highly personable tour-de-force in the film but he doesn’t do much different with the role: this may be JGL as envisioned by the creators of Jersey Shore but it’s still noticeably JGL: good, old’ reliable JGL.

As a film, Don Jon is a bit more problematic. The quick-cut, fast-paced editing that makes an appearance at the beginning continues throughout the film and, to be honest, it gets old kinda fast. As a rule, I’m not a big fan of hyper-active editing unless it really fits the production (Fight Club and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels being two of the best examples) and too much of the editing in Don Jon feels superfluous and unnecessarily flashy. The film also ends up being fairly predictable by the third act, mostly due to a softening of its core idea: despite all of the evidence to the contrary, Jon isn’t a porn addict…he just hasn’t found the right girl. While this may be fine and dandy for a stereotypical Hollywood happy ending, it seems to give short shrift to the film’s previous insights into addiction. In my opinion, it would have made for a much better, more powerful film if we could have truly seen Jon caught in the unhappy throes of his addiction, unable to pursue his own happiness due to his obsessions. As it stands, we get the equivalent of the nice guy who spends the entire film being unhappy with the popular girl only to find true love with the mousey librarian in the final scene. It may make for a “nicer” ending but seems to ring a bit false with everything that preceded it.

That being said, Don Jon is a good film with some genuinely interesting things to say (before it pulls its punches, that is). Some of Jon’s observations about the Catholic Church’s policies regarding confessions are both hilarious and spot-on (it seems to rely on a vague point system where masturbation and out-of-wedlock sex are each assigned different, seemingly arbitrary values) and there’s some great, messy energy to the home scenes involving his parents and (seemingly) mute sister. If some of this seems to unconsciously mimic similar scenes in Saturday Night Fever, it’s only because Jon Martello and Tony Manero are probably long-lost cousins. Julianne Moore, like JGL, is consistently good, although her character may have one quirk too many to be completely believable.

As a directorial debut, Don Jon is good but not great. While his focus on the acting results in some truly great performances, there’s a bit too much reliance on style and flash over substance which, combined with the overly conventional resolution, gives the whole production a bit of a “been there, done that feeling.” Nonetheless, I was a huge fan of JGL’s before watching the film and I don’t find my overall impression of him changed in the slightest: I still think he’s a hair’s breadth away from being a national treasure and I’ll eagerly await his sophomore effort.