The Opposite Sex

Only a few years ago, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was still mostly known as “that kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun.” Since 2005, he’s taken on a host of interesting roles; built the really nifty, an “open collaborative production company”; and now made his debut as a feature film director with the funny, lewd and thoughtful Don Jon, which does double duty as a broad comedy and a mildly subversive take on gender and expectations.

Gordon-Levitt stars as Jon, a Jersey boy known by his friends as “Don” Jon for his skills with the ladies. Jon and the boys go out on the weekends, rate the girls they see on a scale of one to 10 and, inevitably, Jon takes one of them home. On Sundays, he goes to church — swearing at other drivers on the way — and confesses to a week’s worth of sexual sins before going back into the world and doing it all again.

Jon is a bundle of contradictions and hypocrisies, but he’s only really aware of one of those contradictions: As good as Jon is at getting laid, sex doesn’t provide the satisfaction he finds in taking care of business while watching internet porn.

Don Jon has more masturbation scenes than the last several years’ worth of mainstream releases combined, and Gordon-Levitt is fearless when it comes to Jon’s favorite hobby; he puts himself right in the center of the screen, daring you to cringe (and you probably will, sooner or later). Jon’s story is one of redemption, but it comes from an unexpected corner — not from his relationship with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, never without a wad of gum), a “dime” on the one-to-10 scale. Barbara’s a sweet girl with a serious love of romantic comedies, and Don Jon isn’t subtle about its central conceit: Barbara’s love for happily-ever-after is no less damaging to her expectations than Jon’s fixation with porn is to his. Everyone’s being fed a line of bullshit about the opposite sex, and you’ve got to find a way to break that cycle — or a person to help you break out of it.

I tip my hat to Gordon-Levitt for addressing the ugliness of the dominant, gendered narrative from within the frequent framework of that narrative — the (semi) romantic comedy — but I wish he’d indulged his subversive streak a little more. Don Jon’s characters are meant to be stereotypes, but Jon’s the only one who gets to rise above that; his parents, played with gusto by Glenne Headly and Tony Danza, are grating caricatures. We’re meant to see where Jon gets his ideas about love and family, but mostly we just see a mom obsessed with grandkids and a dad obsessed with football; they’re types, not people, and as such they don’t tell us much about Jon. (As Jon’s text-obsessed sister, however, Brie Larson takes the Silent Bob role and runs with it.) Everyone is a cliché to make a point; Gordon-Levitt purposefully pushes gendered expectations to the extremes, to see what happens to a person, male or female, raised on a steady diet of false ideals. But he lets the audience off the hook a little too easily. We all get to think we’re Julianne Moore’s Esther, quirky and passionate, above all the marketing and hype. After all, we’re seeing this movie, not porn or princess weddings, right? But we’re in the machine too. Still, while Don Jon is far from subtle, it’s still smart, honest, salaciously funny and, at times, pleasantly surprising. It’ll be very interesting to see what that kid from that TV show does next. ν

Don Jon: Written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Cinematography, Thomas Kloss. Editing, Lauren Zuckerman. Music, Nathan Johnson. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza and Glenne Headly. Relativity Media, 2013. R. 90 minutes. Three and a half stars.