Monday, September 30, 2013

Don Jon

Uproariously funny and very sexy, "Don Jon" makes a perfect date movie and an exceptional directorial debut for its too-cute-for-words star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

To play Jon Martello, Jr., whose friends dub him Don Jon for his ability to score with the hottest girl at the bar every weekend, JGL has gotten himself into fitness-magazine shape and, well, he's pretty much sex on a stick. (A scene of him taking a bath and then getting out of the tub will undoubtedly be strategically paused on thousands of screens.) In voice-over narration, Jon lists the eight things that matter to him: his body, his pad, his car, his church, his family, his buds, his girls, his porn. He loves him some porn, even more than actual intercourse; he'll often slip out of bed after sex to turn on his computer and "lose himself" in tits and ass.

One Saturday night, Jon's standard repertoire of moves and lines don't work on a sexy young woman in a red dress who stops him in his tracks. (He gives her the very rare 10 out of 10, calling her a "dime.") Her name, as he learns by asking around, is Barbara Sugarman, and Scarlett Johansson plays her with such delicious confidence, it's easy to forget that the veteran Ms. Johansson is still only 28 years old. Barbara accepts Jon's invitation to lunch - largely to find out how he found out about her (once he gets her name, he views her Facebook profile several dozen times) - and spends this scene visibly appraising Jon's potential as a love interest, assessing his motives; though they're contemporaries, Barbara's light years more mature than Jon. She won't play a card a minute too soon; when they make out in front of her door, he'll agree to anything - even taking a night class - to get inside. This character is fresh and new, and the script remains true to her; the arc of her relationship with Jon feels exactly right.

When one door closes, another opens. The next for Jon is Esther, a night school classmate (Julianne Moore). Their first encounter involves him passing her in the doorway while she's having a crying jag. He doesn't think he wants anything to do with her, but she apologizes, and another time bums his notes off him - she'd been distracted throughout class - and eventually they're screwing and taking bong hits in her Jeep. It turns out Esther lost her husband and son in a car accident 14 months ago, and, after she and Jon get more serious, there's a wordless scene of the two of them on her porch. She's holding back tears, and he's just looking at her and letting her be. It's really beautiful. As always, Moore just comes into a movie and creates a human being in half an hour or so. Never a false move, ever. 

Barbara and Esther are but two of the many well-drawn characters in Jon's life. The broadest material in the movie involves his hot-tempered, football-obsessed father (Tony Danza) and his ma, Angela (Glenne Headly), who spends her life waiting for Jon to announce at dinner that he's met The One. The only thing Danza has working for him as an actor is that we like him, and here that's enough. Headly, unrecognizable from her "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" days, nails Angie, and as Jon's sister Monica, Brie Larson, who made such a strong impression this summer in "Short Term 12," gets more laughs without saying a word than anyone in recent memory. (I had tears coming out of my eyes just from the angle of her expression as she looks at her cell phone while still hearing every word said around the table.) Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke as Jon's bros Bobby and Danny are also right on point. 

Everything in "Don Jon" rings of truth, which is pretty amazing given how easily it could have descended into caricature. A devout Catholic, Jon confesses his sexual relations and masturbation to his priest in numerical detail, and happily accepts the Our Fathers and Hail Marys required of him as penance. We hear him recite them line by line as he rattles off reps at the gym (Barbara: "What, are you talking to yourself, baby?"). JGL brings the same honesty to directing as he does to this great script. In his first film behind the camera, he shows the self-assurance of an old pro, ending scenes in a way that allows us to know what happens next without having to see it play out. A lot of the laughs in his movie come from what's not said, or from the anticipation of what's about to be said. And he's brought it in in 90 minutes, with an ending that's lovely and true and leaves us wanting even more.

In this age of cheap-to-shoot digital video, none of which today's self-styled auteurs would like to cut, when's the last time you wished a movie was longer?

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