Don Jon is a movie about Italian people living in New Jersey made by a person who has apparently never met an Italian person in real life, or ever been to New Jersey except perhaps on the way to and from the airfield in Teterboro, where private planes fly him and other celebrities from New York to Hollywood.
Nonetheless, writer-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was born and raised in Los Angeles and has been a television and movie star since his early teens, thinks he has the whole Italian/New Jersey thing covered. What he did (I think) was watch several episodes of Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey and have his costar Scarlett Johansson do the same—and that was basically it. Her performance consists primarily of chewing gum, dropping her “r”s, and being mean—just like a Real Housewife. His performance consists of working out a lot so that his body might resemble the one sported by “The Situation” on Jersey Shore. But don’t think he didn’t go for some authenticity. To play his father, who is mostly seen in a wife-beater T-shirt, Gordon-Levitt hired Tony Danza, whose entire acting career has basically consisted of him saying, “Aaaaaay.”
Jon, the title character, is a 28-year-old bartender who never finished college and has nothing of interest to say—but he’s catnip to the ladies at one of those mythical clubs you see in movies, where all it takes is a close-up of his face and a close-up of her face and then smash-cut to the two of them having sex. He goes to these clubs with his “boys,” of course, one of whom is a fellow goombah and the other (because, you know, diversity) is a charming African-American guy who has nothing in common with his friends and surely has better things to do.
Despite the fact that Jon is a wildly successful ladies’ man, he is obsessed with porn. He watches it constantly on his laptop, even to the point of doing so after he’s brought a woman home and left her asleep in his bed. This only becomes a problem after he meets Barbara, the sexiest gum-chewer in all of Jersey. This woman does nothing but chew gum, watch romance-heavy dramas, chew gum some more, and tease Jon relentlessly. When he follows her wishes and goes back to college, she finally lets him into her bed. They’re in love, although he still watches porn and she is occasionally really nasty to him when he doesn’t live up to the fantasies she has breathed in from the movies the way he has breathed in sexual fantasies from pornography.
She catches him at it; he promises to quit; he doesn’t. Meanwhile, he strikes up a peculiar relationship with a woman in his college class—a mysterious, pot-smoking sophisticate 15 years his senior who discovers his obsession and turns him on to artistic-style 1970s porn. This is how he knows she is a person of many parts, because (evidently) that porn was so much better than the porn we have today.
Don Jon works hard to be exuberant and catchy, even as it dips its toe into rather dark territory. The end result is that the exuberant and catchy stuff seems forced and hysterical, and the dark stuff seems altogether too light. Gordon-Levitt is a fluent actor, but not a particularly interesting one; as a writer, he’s even less interesting. What Jon learns, it seems, is not how to be a better person or how to cope with what appears to be a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but rather how to have better sex by doing so with someone you don’t really love but who is very honest.
Well, that’s nice for him, but it’s a pretty odd lesson, let’s face it. Most people don’t have sex the way Jon does, though perhaps celebrities who have been stars since their teenage years do. Most people aren’t obsessed with porn the way Jon is, so learning how to cope with the problem by substituting meaningless sex for it doesn’t quite impart the lesson I think Gordon-Levitt wants it to. Though, to be honest, I don’t really know what lesson he wants us to take from it, except maybe that Italians are just, you know, so delightfully, hilariously over the top.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.