Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s writing/directing/starring debut is like its diamond-in-the-rough title character. It shows a lot of unrealized potential, with enough charm to ease you past its shortcomings. “Don Jon” is a romantic comedy told from a male perspective, avoiding the usual tropes of the genre, adding raunchy humor and a dash of realism to the kind of story that’s usually told in gauzy soft focus.
Jon is a New Jersey bartender who has simplified life to its essentials. He’s serious about his workouts, his family, his church, his tidy apartment, his immaculate car, his buddies, and women. He’s the king of the clubs, taking the best-looking women to his place for one-night stands.
What really satisfies his erotic itch, though, is computer porn, where every less-than-perfect moment is edited out and there are no messy relationships to maintain. Gordon-Levitt’s innate amiability, his buddy-buddy voice-overs and the film’s light tone present Jon as a cocky rascal rather than a coldhearted cad.
Then Jon encounters Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a golden-girl Jewish American Princess, and the notion that maybe there’s more to life than immediate gratification. Recognizing a promising fixer-upper, she begins a reform campaign baited with sexy payoffs. She plays hard-to-get, making him woo her.
Soon he’s seeing Barbara exclusively, enrolling in night school, and accompanying her to the Hollywood love stories that are her own brand of idealized mating fictions. (Anne Hathaway, Channing Tatum, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Meagan Good contribute funny cameos in these sequences.)
With encouragement from his father (Tony Danza) and pressure from his mother (Glenne Headly), Jon begins to formalize his relationship. Then Barbara discovers his porn habit and flips. It’s not only offensive to her, it’s a part of his sex life where she can’t wield control.
With the advice of a middle-aged night-school classmate (Julianne Moore), Jon begins to see that this intimacy thing might be legit. If you think you know where it goes from here, get ready for some large surprises.
Actors turned directors seem to pull the best from their casts, and everyone here is in brilliant form. Gordon-Levitt and Johansson are believable as a half-smart, perfectly mismatched couple who both have been bamboozled by banal fantasies. Moore shows off deep reserves of vulnerability, intelligence and humor in a role that is more than the walk-on it appears. Danza and Headly go to town with their broad Italian stereotypes.
“Don Jon” doesn’t reach the heights of Gordon-Levitt’s dazzling work in “500 Days of Summer,” but it’s a welcome chapter in the evolution of a genuine talent.