Writer/Director Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars with Scarlett Johansson in “Don Jon.” Photo by Daniel McFadden
Writer/Director Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars with Scarlett Johansson in “Don Jon.” Photo by Daniel McFadden
Arts Rancho Santa Fe

Film review: ‘Don Jon’ has heart, but film skips a beat

While “Don Jon” is funny, unorthodox and engaging in its first half, the film loses steam in the second half, leaving leaves a lot to be desired. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt does great work as an actor; he’s already worked with several high-profile filmmakers and played significant roles in many genres of films. The moment I heard his directorial debut was going to be “Don Jon,” my reaction consisted of interested curiosity.

After deliberating for several hours, though, I can honestly say I don’t know what to think about Gordon-Levitt’s first effort behind the lens.

As much as I appreciated his energetic confidence in the first half, I felt as though the heart, which became more apparent in the second half, never materialized in its fullest form, leaving me with more questions than answers about what the film was trying to get across.

Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a modern-day Don Juan, cares about only a few things in this world: his muscles, his living space, his car, his folks, his religion, his friends, and his hookups.

Given his constant objectification of everything he sees and touches, it’s no wonder his nickname is “Don Jon.”

But even those aspects of his life pale in comparison to the pleasure he experiences from watching porn, which has caused him to become dissatisfied with reality.

Life takes an interesting turn when the drop-dead gorgeous Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) enters the picture. She’s a hardcore fan of Hollywood romantic comedies, and dreams of finding a man who exemplifies her idea of perfection. When Jon meets her, the two of them become a couple, but he eventually comes to realize the truth about actual intimacy in a fantasy-dominated world.

So, yes, I got a kick out of the first half of “Don Jon,” and Gordon-Levitt’s confident direction gave me good reason to lose myself in it. The lively visuals and rapid editing immersed me in the lead character’s playboy personality, and I sensed this directorial debut truly had something going for it.

Even better, the catchy dialogue exchanges between Gordon-Levitt and Johansson were instrumental in keeping the flow of the film’s first portion going. One thing is for certain — the dynamic between the two of them was laced with intrigue and excitement.

Once the first half concluded and paved the way for the second half to take effect, I was under the impression that “Don Jon” would end on a high note. Fast-forward to me working at my desk hours later, and I find myself unsure of what the film’s ending was about.

Things should’ve taken an interesting turn for the better when Julianne Moore became the new female focus, and at first, they do. This is where the humanity of “Don Jon” slowly but steadily unveils itself, highlighting the challenging journey Gordon-Levitt faces as his character struggles to reform himself and learn what real love means.

But just as I sensed the rapport between him and Moore was heading somewhere, the film ended abruptly and left me hanging. Whatever message Gordon-Levitt sought to convey got cut off before it could be heard; as a result, I am now confused as to whether or not the time he spent with her had any clear purpose.

I tried really hard to comprehend what “Don Jon” seemed to say once the credits rolled, but in the end, I just couldn’t; therefore, I haven’t a clue as to what I should believe about it. All I have are questions to which I don’t know if there are any answers: Why did the film end when the story clearly had more to say?

Was there a point to this tale about a porn addict learning about what love is? How come I don’t feel like this journey realized its full potential?

The more I think about it, “Don Jon” is a film that may require multiple viewings to understand what it wishes to say. If you decide to go see this film, and you walk out feeling the same way I did, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Then again, this isn’t a film for everyone, given its rather sensitive yet relevant topical matter.

MPAA rating: R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use.
Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Playing: In general release