I’m told that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 2009 short, “Sparks,” based on Elmore Leonard’s brilliant short story of cat-and-mouse-as-dialogue, is terrific and sharply cast. Gordon-Levitt’s feature debut, “Don Jon,” (The Landmark, Laemmle NoHo 7, Laemmle Claremont 5) lacks a writer of Leonard’s mastery (because the director made the mistake of writing his own script) but confirms that Gordon-Levitt knows his way around casting.
His movie is a thin reed, a wan fable of a Jersey studmuffin who keeps an impeccably clean pad for the endless round of chicks he takes home from weekend clubs for one-night stands—that is, when he’s not engaged in marathon sessions viewing online porn. Jon (Gordon-Levitt of course wrote himself the lead role) finds a “dime” (read: a ten) in Scarlett Johansson’s Barbara Sugarman, whose body and attitude scream pure sex but is really all about controlling her man every step to the altar. One could speculate that Jon wants Barbara to discover that his denial of porn addiction is a lie, if only as a means to escape from certain matrimonial death.
The convenient arrival of older single gal Esther (Julianne Moore) is a deus ex machina designed to teach Jon useful lessons on love with sex, and presumably break him of his life as a masturbating surfer. In between are weekly rounds of Sunday Mass, Sunday dinner with family (Tony Danza’s sensational performance as Jon’s dad is the movie’s revelation, upstaging even the great Glenne Headly as his mom) and other routines that Gordon-Levitt heightens with his skilled editor Lauren Zuckerman into bits of absurdist comedy.
The bits never amount to much, and the script fails the movie, but the choices of Johansson, Moore, Danza, Headly and all the way down to the smallest roles are consistently inspired, as if the best possible acting versions of fairly stereotyped characters were found. Good actors know other good actors when they see them, and “Don Jon” is proof of that simple fact.
Robert Koehler, a film critic for Film Comment, Cinema Scope and Cineaste, blogs about movies on arts·meme.