Don’t look now, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt has quietly been putting together quite the hot streak. Going back at least as far as 2010’s Inception, JGL’s fired off six straight (well, five and a half) top-shelf performances in very good movies (50/50, The Dark Knight Rises, Premium Rush, Looper, and a relatively small role in Lincoln).
But apparently what he’s really wanted to do is direct. Though he’s helmed a handful of shorts over the years, he’s never had a full-fledged feature, and for his first time out (and also his debut as a screenwriter), JGL chooses the serio-comedic tale of a porn-addicted Guido. Sure, it’s about as marketable as, say, a musical about cannibals, but make no mistake: Don Jon is as confident and well-crafted as any debut in recent memory– a surprisingly honest and authentic rom-com (and yes, there’s actually quite a bit of “rom” here).
As we learn early on, Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) cares about only a few things in life– including his car, his church, his buddies, and, yes, his online porn. He actually prefers porn to the real thing, he tells us, because it’s the only time when he can really lose himself. But then he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) while clubbing one night, and things begin to change. After a few weeks, the “L”-word starts to enter his vocabulary, and his laptop even starts to grow a little dusty.
To say much more would risk ruining a story that never stops moving forward and never ceases to entertain. The easy (and appropriate) comparison is to Saturday Night Fever, which was clearly an inspiration here. With equal amounts of wry comedy and full-on drama (and family dinner table scenes that rival any of Tony Manero’s “Watch the hair!” moments), Don Jon feels like a true slice of life; not a bit of the finished product seems forced or out-of-place.
Both JGL and Johansson turn in fearless performances, among the best of their respective careers, and they’re bolstered by a supporting cast who make it look too easy. Tony Danza and Glenne Headly are hilarious as Jon’s Jersey shore parents, and the outstanding Julianne Moore pops up out of nowhere as a kind friend Jon makes at night school.
Gordon-Levitt’s direction is the real revelation here, though. From the brilliantly repetitive jump cuts he uses to reveal Jon’s mundane existence to his deft handling of the subject matter, JGL turns in a debut that easily rivals the one we got from Steven Soderbergh back in 1989, a head-turning little film called sex, lies, and videotape.
After only one outing, it’s obviously a little early to crown Gordon-Levitt a “triple threat”, but Don Jon clearly shows that he’s well on his way.
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