There are only a few things in life the New Jersey gym rat/bartender Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) truly cares about: His body, his ride, his pad, his family, his friends and his porn. Man, does he love his porn. Even though the handsome Jon never goes home alone after a night of clubhopping, and even though he never settles for a woman that doesn’t rank at least an 8 on his tough scale, the act of sex doesn’t fulfill him. Every time his latest random hook-up has passed out in his bed, he sneaks away to his laptop for a nightcap. “Nothing else does it for me in the same way,” Jon tells us. Visual stimulation is more satisfying than the real thing. And he can’t get enough.
Then he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a perfect 10 with the sass and attitude to match. Except Barbara doesn’t sleep around. She forces Jon to play the long game — court her, date her, take her to see romantic comedies starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. Barbara has a giant poster of Titanic hanging in her apartment. Her take on relationships is just as warped as Jon’s, except hers is shaped by happily-ever-after fairy tales and the belief that a man should do everything for his woman. She also doesn’t think sex is something to be treated lightly. “Don’t you think it’s always better when it means something?” she asks the flummoxed Jon.
Don Jon was written and directed by Gordon-Levitt, who subverts traditional rom-com formulas with humor and an uncommonly frank depiction of a man’s skewed psyche. The movie argues that contemporary media — be it magazines, movies, TV ads or the Internet — have made us all more isolated and self-centered than ever. When Jon starts going to night school at a community college and befriends an emotionally troubled but blunt woman (Julianne Moore), he is repelled by her honesty: He recoils from her, looking at her as if she were crazy, because she doesn’t hide under a facade, pretending to be something she’s not.
Jon feels much more comfortable at home, where his raucous Italian family (Tony Danza and Glenne Headley play his parents, and Brie Larson is his texting-obsessed sister) talk and argue at the dinner table, but no one is really paying attention to anyone else. Although the characters could have easily become guido stereotypes — Danza is particularly good as Jon’s meathead dad — Gordon-Levitt makes sure we can always see the human beings inside.
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Carefully written and edited so every one of its 90 minutes counts, Don Jon is peppered with small, seemingly throwaway scenes that pack an unexpected wallop. When Jon tells Barbara he needs to buy some Swiffers because he’s run out, she chastises him for cleaning his own apartment and tells him he should hire someone — a woman — to do that for him. She emasculates and humiliates him without even realizing it. The movie has a keen understanding of how easily we can hurt other people by not considering them.
Despite its subject matter, Don Jon has surprisingly little nudity (Jon and Barbara are fully clothed the first time they have sex). The movie only shows us snippets of the online videos and images that have consumed Jon’s life and have made him keep track of the number of times he can erupt in one day (his personal best is 10).
Don Jon is nominally a love triangle between a woman, a man and his laptop, but the movie is much more thoughtful and substantial than that, and it takes a compassionate and humane approach to all of its characters, even when they’re at their most despicable. Don Jon implores us to look past the surfaces of our increasingly fetishized, artificial, social media-driven culture. Like Jon gradually learns, real people are always more interesting, messy flaws and all.