Jon Martello, the subject of Don Jon, is instantly familiar to us, if only from movies. For starters, he lives in New Jersey, one of the most relentlessly stereotyped locales in North America. Writer-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also stars as Jon, adds to that by making his lead character the archetypal Italian-American Jersey Boy: a loud-mouthed, quick-tempered, slow-witted, outlandishly vain, lower-middle-class striver whose otherwise dull existence is a nonstop competition for hustling local women out of nightclubs and into his bachelor-pad bed.
So Gordon-Levitt's movie creates obstacles for itself right away, from the very first scene. His New Jersey is not the New Jersey of Todd Solondz (Dark Horse, Welcome to the Dollhouse) or Woody Allen (Broadway Danny Rose), although we can see the broad outlines. It's not the place where Patton Oswalt got into trouble in Robert D. Siegel's Big Fan, and despite the Italian-American connection it's most definitely on a different planet than the one the late James Gandolfini inhabited, either on The Sopranos or in David Chase's sentimental Not Fade Away. Those productions all made a conscious effort to take the clichés in a new direction, to branch out from the things that Gordon-Levitt — a former child actor who was born and raised in Southern California — gets down and rolls around in.
"Don Jon" the ladies' man charges around in his muscle car, works out feverishly, faithfully attends church (never forgetting to hit the confessional, one of several running gags), and seemingly eats every meal with his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly, in pure sitcom form). Jon and his meathead buddies talk in sports-TV clichés and generally behave like lab rats in a social-conditioning experiment. At dinner, he and his dad wear "wife beaters" and watch pro football on a jumbo screen while yelling at each other. One other plot wrinkle: Jon is a world-class Internet porn slave. Even after he bags the hottest hottie in town, club babe Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), and they begin a "serious relationship," he cuffs the carrot in front of the little screen numerous times per day. Then he gleefully confesses everything, in detail, and the priest mechanically gives him the Our Father-and-Hail Mary sentence, which Jon bangs out along with sit-ups at the gym. Don Jon, however, is not a social-problem pic à la Thanks for Sharing with its sex-addicted urbanites. It's just a satirical character study with more character than satire.
Given this hectic, repetitive routine, our hero feels as if there is something missing from his life. Into the picture comes Esther (Julianne Moore), an older, more complicated woman Jon meets at the evening class he attends. Over and above the fact that she is a classic "cougar" who smokes weed and encourages nervous Jon to slow down and mellow out, Esther opens up new vistas for the Jersey Boy — which is what Don Jon is ultimately all about. There's a lesson here: Take every opportunity to get out of New Jersey.
Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Hesher) has such a charismatic screen personality we can forgive him — to a degree — for most of his storytelling faults, like his decision to nail down Jon's personality traits with such heavy blows. We want to believe Jon will grow out of being an oaf, despite evidence to the contrary. Johansson is likewise ideally cast as hectoring housewife-in-waiting Barbara. Ditto Danza and Headly as Mr. and Mrs. Martello. It's as if Danza's character from the Taxi TV show were fast-forwarded.
Moore, as usual, is an animal of a different stripe. In film after film — Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Far from Heaven, Children of Men, Savage Grace, The Kids Are All Right, and What Maisie Knew — adventurous filmmakers have sought her out to project that incisive, quicksilver unpredictability that has become her trademark. Moore specializes in causing movies to change direction, a difficult trick that she makes look easy. Gordon-Levitt relies on her in his feature-length directorial debut, and Moore's grief-stricken earth mother Esther not only saves Jon from himself, she saves the story. Smart decision.