Like my #3 film of 2012, "Argo" (a rare good choice for Best Picture by the Academy), I awarded my #3 film of 2013 four stars not only because it's a little slice of perfection but in part for the promise of more great work to come from its young writer-director. In his exceptional debut behind the camera, "Don Jon," the too-cute-for-words Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave us the sexiest and most riotously funny film of the year, a perfect date movie that flirts with superficial pleasures but comes home to a place of profound human connection.
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 getting out of the tub will undoubtedly be strategically paused on thousands of screens.) In voice-over, Jon lists the eight things that matter to him: his body, his pad, his car, his church, his family, his boys, his girls, his porn. He loves his 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 sizzling-hot woman in red who stops him in his tracks. (He gives her the elusive 10 out of 10, calling her a "dime.") He asks around about her. Her name is Barbara Sugarman, and Scarlett Johansson plays her with such delicious, bubblegum-chewing confidence, it's easy to forget that the veteran Ms. Johansson is still not 30 years old. Barbara accepts Jon's invitation to lunch - largely to find out how he found out about her - and spends the meal visibly appraising Jon's potential and 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 to take a night class - to get inside. Johansson's character is fresh and new, and JGL's script remains true to her; the arc of her relationship with Jon feels just right. And their frequent arguments about Jon's porn habit produce one of the best lines of the year: "Every guy," he tells her, "watches porn every day."
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 a doorway while she's in the middle of 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 earlier, 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 walks into a movie and creates a human being in half an hour. Never a false move, ever.
Barbara and Esther are but two of the many well-drawn characters in Jon's life. There's 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. Headly and Danza (trading on his accumulated goodwill) nail their parts, and as Jon's sister Monica, Brie Larson gets huge laughs without saying a word; she sits at the dinner table, never looking up from her cell phone but hearing everything that's said. Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke as Jon's bros Bobby and Danny are also right on point.
"Don Jon" rings of truth from start to finish, which is pretty amazing considering how easily it could have lapsed 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; he recites them line by line as he rattles off reps at the gym. JGL brings the same honesty to directing as he has to this great script, showing the assurance of a practiced hand by ending scenes in a way that allows us to know what happens next without having to watch 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 in a year of bloated would-be epics, JGL may be that treasurable anachronism who still believes brevity is the soul of wit. He's brought "Don Jon" 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 want to cut, when's the last time you wished a movie was longer?
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