Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s feature-length directorial debut certainly could have gone worse than Don Jon: an unremarkable but functional movie about a man’s addiction to pornography. It also could have been a whole lot better. The problem comes less from Gordon-Levitt’s talent behind the camera — it’s shot fine and there are a few flourishes of style here and there — and more from the screenplay, which he also wrote, which is repetitive and predictable in nature and doesn’t feel particularly true-to-life. As a result, the film’s climax doesn’t resonate and it is almost impossible to emotionally invest in any of the characters.
The plot goes like this: Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a serial womanizer, someone who goes to the club every weekend with his best friends and manages to score every time. He has something of a reputation. One night, he catches a glimpse of Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who doesn’t fall for his usual tactics. If he wants her, he is in it for the long haul.
They become a couple, but have to take it slow. One night, Barbara catches Jon watching porn, which she believes is the most disgusting thing he could do. She tells him if he does it again, they’re through. Jon is addicted to watching porn — he explains to us no fewer than three times via voice-over narration that he finds it more gratifying than sex — so he sneaks around to watch porn.
Meanwhile, Barbara tries to get Jon to change his life, which involves having him take a night course where he meets a hippie who never grew up, Esther (Julianne Moore). If you’ve already figured out where the plot is going from here, you’re not alone. Don Jon isn’t going to surprise anyone watching it.
Unfortunately, it’s also not going to make many people laugh, which is a cardinal sin for a comedy. Addictions typically don’t make for the funniest material, especially when they have a negative impact on someone’s life. Replace porn with heroin and we’ve got a much more depressing picture, but apparently we’re supposed to laugh when a mental illness is related to something that we don’t casually speak about in public because it embarrasses us. At least, that is what the film hopes. A few laughs come from Jon’s sitcom-like family, which consists of Tony Danza and Glenne Headly hamming it up as Italian-Catholic stereotypes and Brie Larson staring at her phone for all but one scene.
We watch Jon go through the same routine a significant number of times throughout the film and it gets dull quickly. As soon as a scene starts or a character is introduced, we know exactly what’s going to happen. It robs the film of its credibility and potential emotional impact. When the audience is well aware of how scripted the movie they’re watching is, it’s almost impossible to invest. And without many laughs to go around, there is not much reason to watch. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to make for a charismatic and strong lead and gives his character a unique voice and a swagger which differentiates him from his previous roles. But while the film is technically proficient, its screenplay leaves a lot to be desired and it’s not worth seeing because of this.