Joseph Gordon-Levitt has things he wants to do. He directed a short film, Sparks, based on an Elmore Leonard novel, in 2009, and in 2010 he had a pair of shorts at Sundance and South by Southwest. He had an executive producer credit on 2012’s Looper. In the mid-2000s, he founded hitRECord, an online collaborative workspace where people can submit songs, film, images, text, and pretty much anything else they want and have it remixed and refined by the crowd. Work from that site then screened at Sundance, and the movement has since released books, CDs, and DVDs. Gordon-Levitt is active on the site, too; one recent post features video from a live performance he did of a song written by a community member, as well as green-screen clips that people can download and animate and resubmit. He has 2.2 million followers on Twitter, and he’s not yet 33. This is not a guy who wants to sit around.
That sense of constant motion makes its way into Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt’s first feature-length film as a writer and director and something like his 37th as an actor. This isn’t so much a directorial debut as it is a piece of a larger puzzle, one more measured slice of output that’s as much about Gordon-Levitt’s experimental desire to push himself as it is to make a movie. It’s not a bad movie, either. It has heart and soul and most of a brain, and it’s got confidence and style to spare. But the best parts of the film are those where Gordon-Levitt remembers to slow down, and where his m.o. is not “Wouldn’t it be cool if?” but “What does this mean, and why?”
As befits a man who champions remix culture, Don Jon wears its visual influences proudly. Borrowing some of the formal balance and frenetic cuts of earlier Paul Thomas Anderson, the scored-to-the-hilt montages of Scorsese, and the strobe-light discomfort of Gaspar Noe, Gordon-Levitt’s produced a film that feels, well, very produced. He stars as “Don” Jon, a Jersey boy who loves working out, hooking up, and watching porn with equal passion. In a gravelly voice-over, Jon describes his love for porn in cold, dedicated terms; watching it is all a part of his routine, and one of the many ways he keeps his life under control. Gordon-Levitt’s direct in showing how Jon is a slave to his compulsions, from the way he fastidiously makes his sheets and hits the gym regularly to the way he clocks in at church like a good Catholic and beds a series of nameless women with carefully executed moves. The only time Jon really loses his cool is when he’s driving, howling at others from behind the wheel of his muscle car because they aren’t doing what he thinks they should be. Gordon-Levitt keeps the energy up as Jon and his boys go to clubs and scout for “dimes” — women they think are perfect 10s. As director and actor, he never seems to stay still for long, capturing a kind of nervous energy that’s perfect for a young bruiser who thinks he has it all figured out.
Things have to change, though, and a movie about addiction can only go so many ways. Soon enough, Jon’s life gets complicated when two very different women come into it: Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a fellow Jerseyite with a mud-thick accent who captures Jon’s body and heart almost immediately, and Esther (Julianne Moore), a sad, reflective older woman Jon meets in the community college class Barbara pushes him to take. Barbara’s a reflection of Jon in every way: attractive, ambitious, and intoxicated with the power of control. Jon fed his addiction by having sex with random women and watching porn to unwind; Barbara feeds hers by withholding sex from Jon until she knows he’s going to try to earn more money and give her what she wants. Each views the other as a means to an end, and Gordon-Levitt knows enough about their destructive personalities to let them play off other in rounds of fights where they each scramble for more ground. Esther represents the other path: emotional honesty, the fear (and likelihood) of failure, and the recognition that life does not always work out the way you want. She catches Jon surreptitiously watching porn on his phone in class and she doesn’t buck, but she does titter knowingly at how much he has to learn about real people. Jon finds himself careening between the two, in a relationship with Barbara but just as influenced by Esther. His scenes with Barbara rely on stereotypes of erotic charge, pulsing and moving the way imagination does, but those with Esther are less predictable and more risky, and they’re done with fewer cuts, longer takes, and a trust that their natural chemistry can carry the moment.
The best parts of the film are those where Gordon-Levitt dials back his need to put on a show and simply lets particular scenes play out to a natural, knotty conclusion. It’s not that his freneticism is bad; it’s that it works best when serving a purpose other than trying to hype itself up. The shouting matches when Jon has meals with his family (Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, and an utterly wasted Brie Larson who says only a few words the entire time) are cartoons that go beyond comedy and lapse into headache, but the blast of images he uses to convey, say, one man’s repeated and regular descent into habitual addiction — and all the denials and lies it takes to maintain the fiction — are arresting. Gordon-Levitt knows he has to walk a fine visual line here, too. It’s like how war can be so gruesome but still look sickly appealing on screen; sexual images, even in the service of a story about their hollowness, still have the power to compel. (Plus there’s the fact that showing just a fragment of an actual porn video would rocket the film into NC-17 territory.) He gets around the problem by relying on quick, impressionistic images and tight framing: Don’s eyes over a laptop screen’s edge, blurry and blown-up pixels, altered sound. And it works, too. By leaning on cropped, zoomed-in, deconstructed images from adult videos, Gordon-Levitt keeps the film focused on the story while also revealing porn’s inherent emptiness. These things become ghosts of images, and they haunt Jon at every step.
There’s a lot going on in Don Jon, and while not all of it works, that’s also part of its appeal. Gordon-Levitt is clearly on fire to try something here, and he’s written and directed an ambitious and awkward and occasionally clunky and often powerful movie about the way we lie to ourselves and what it takes to be honest with someone we love. It’s not a new topic, but that’s precisely why it’s so strong. He’s found a fresher way to get at something that pesters all of us, and in wrestling with ideas of authenticity and human connection, he’s continuing on the path he’s laying for himself one hard-carved brick at a time. Gordon-Levitt is determined to find new ways to forge relationships with the audience, and Don Jon is both a reflection of that desire and a solid execution of same. He has things he wants to say, and I want to listen.