This review was originally published on January 24, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
An actor on screens large and small since 1988, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has adeptly survived the transition from child stardom to become a proper leading man, and after starring in four remarkably different roles last year, he's finally stepped behind the camera to make a funny, sly directorial debut out of "Don Jon."
Though he sees plenty of action, buff bartender Jon (Gordon-Levitt) prefers porn to the real thing. This New Jersey lothario — accordingly nicknamed by his best pals as "Don Jon" — can't help but challenge himself when a proper "10" walks in one night. Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) isn't going to make it easy, though. He'll have to wait to get in her pants, for a change. He'll need to take on night classes to finish his degree. And, most importantly, the porn has to go.
Responsible for the screenplay in addition to directing duties, Gordon-Levitt displays an assured style in both arenas, smartly structuring the film around Jon's dutiful church confessions and establishing his habitual nature with quick montages of routine, whether it be in the gym, in the bedroom or on the dance floor. (Think the "Requiem for a Dream" drug rush beats, complemented by the suitable bombast of Nathan Johnson's score.) Visits with the family — Tony Danza has a great time as Jon's dad — evoke "Saturday Night Fever," while Barbara's increasing efforts to help Jon improve himself ultimately echo the one-sided endgame of Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things."
Don't let those two particular points of reference fool you. "Don Jon" is often light on its feet, bolstered by the reliable charms and writing chops of its leading man. He nails the accent and swagger of a man who's both smart and shallow, convinced that his relentless masturbation is no big deal and deluded into believing that his romantic relationships ought to fall in line with the phony example of so many dirty movies. Johansson certainly suits the physical prime of her part, and furthermore, she gives a meatier performance than most of late, encouraging and selfish in equal measure. Julianne Moore appears later in the game as one of Jon's fellow classmates, Esther, a middle-aged woman with her own hang-ups who still may help Jon to learn the difference between screwing and making love.
It's not hard to guess whether or not this ladies' man will see the error of his ways, but Gordon-Levitt's probably seen more than his fair share of romantic comedies, going so far as to include a spot-on send-up mid-movie. While he doesn't exactly turn the genre on its head, he finds interesting shades of character with which to color in between the lines, and "Don Jon" bodes well enough for his career to come.
SCORE: 7.8 / 10