MEEK AT THE MOVIES —- Don Jon (3 stars)


^ the lady killer and his ‘eleven” — Joseph Gordon-Leavitt courts Scarlett Johansen in “Don Jon”

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So you’re a lady killer and you’ve got abs and a workout routine that challenge The Situation (not to mention a bit of his Jersey gym rat accent too), so why live the life of a chronic masturbator when you can have any babe in the house? A good question and pretty much the rub of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s plucky rom-com, where he not only tackles the role of the buff Jersey boy of the title but also makes his feature debut as both writer and director.

The film’s intrepid protagonist is so tagged Don Jon (a play on his first name, Jon coupled with that of the notorious lover, Don Juan) by his boyz because he always scores, though in private his ideal sex partner is ten minutes of internet porn and a tissue. Even after landing a nine (on a ten scale), it’s not untypical for Jon to slip out of bed as the conquest du jour snoozes and fire up the laptop for a quick porno boosted topping off.

Sex addict, porn addict? “Don Jon” is not so concerned with that as with Jon’s journey from meandering man-boy into manhood. That transition gets a strong directional pull one night; while out prowling the clubs, Jon lays eyes on the comely Barbara (Scarlett Johansen giving her best and most sex bomb performance to date). She’s an arguable eleven (that ten scale again!) who’s interested in Jon, but won’t let him bed her without a proper and long courtship, and she adroitly knows how to keep him on the hook without letting him in for a night cap. Barbara’s also a life planner and isn’t so thrilled by Jon’s dead end job in an electronics store or his lack of education; so, to even get in the game, Jon’s got to sign up for night classes and take Barbara to meet his parents. These ultimately prove to be loaded and fateful propositions.

Much in the film carries the tang of stereotype and cliché (think “Jersey Shore”), but as it washes over you and takes hold, you realize there’s much more going on than a couple of greasers looking for hit-and-runs. It’s about letting go, finding yourself and connecting; a sly subversive charm that Gordon-Levitt has (through skill or beginner’s luck) infused into the script. Barbara’s gum smacking challenges and demands piquantly put Jon on edge; and, as director, writer and actor, Gordon-Levitt isn’t afraid to deprecate himself or let the other players take center. Jon’s outshone by nearly every other character in the film. Barbara’s a strong cup of tea with her blunt bimbo-esque garble and clingy sweater dresses. Then there’s an overly tanned and toned Tony Dana and Glenne Headly serving up devilish fun (and archetypal puns) as Jon’s working class parents, while Julianne Moore adds a soft, human touch as a troubled older woman in one of Jon’s night classes. Their relationship moves in surprising and affecting ways that educes the reluctant heart in the brash braggadocio.

As Gordon-Levitt builds the film with emotional layers that take root with earnestness, there’s always a jab of good humor in nearly every scene, even if it’s a quick cutaway to Jon’s mounting mass of wadded-up tissue balls in the ubiquitous wired mesh trash can next to the laptop. The compendium of comedy also gets boosted by Jeremy Luke and Rob Brown as Jon’s posse and Greek chorus; Brie Larson adds tartness as Jon’s adolescent sister; she’s a constant reminder of teen angst and boredom as she sits at the dinner table, tacit and unengaged even during bursts of raised voice hysteria, which is common place at Jon’s parents’ house.

In its sweet quirkiness “Don Jon” plays out like a Woody Allen comedy from the other side of the tracks with sharp sophomoric wit stepping in for highbrow satire. It’s an impressive outing for Gordon-Levitt as a nascent filmmaker even if the film doesn’t have a satisfactory “happy ending.”

— Tom Meek / meek at the Movies