Only an actor as appealing as Joseph Gordon-Levitt could pull off the role he creates for himself in “Don Jon’s Addiction,” an endearingly masturbatory look at how a culture of objectification erodes our capacity for intimacy. Serving up his directorial debut as the cherry atop a year of enormous career growth, the “Looper” star plays a lothario whose insatiable appetite for Internet porn stands in the way of a meaningful relationship. Jaunty handling of the taboo subject could also bar the way of a wide release, calling for a possible rethink of how the racy Sundance cut samples X-rated footage.
Once the scrawny kid from “3rd Rock From the Sun,” Gordon-Levitt has filled out for the role of a modern-day Don Juan, who is first seen deep in the throes of onanism. Looking like a castaway from “Jersey Shore,” gym-built, greasy-haired bartender Jon has been getting his jollies from explicit videos three, four, sometimes 10 times a day for so long, the real deal no longer thrills him.
This poses a challenge when he spies fantasy girl Barbara (Scarlett Johansson, looking like a live-action Jessica Rabbit) at the club. Sure, sex is fun, but not nearly as satisfying as porn, Jon explains in the film’s flashy opening voiceover, articulating a troubling value shift few have had the courage to raise, while liberally illustrating the point with the visual stimuli on which he’s come to rely for one-sided thrills.
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Barbara insists on a more traditional courtship, however, dragging Jon to the movies, which supply equally unrealistic albeit more socially acceptable romantic expectations (courtesy of Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway, who cameo in clips for a “SNL”-worthy Nicholas Sparks sendup called “Special Someone”). When Barbara finally does give in and sleep with Jon, he still can’t resist sneaking out of bed for a digital digestif, jeopardizing what’s shaping up to be his first serious relationship when she catches him making love to his laptop.
Before meeting Barbara, all Jon cared about were his physique, his neat-freak apartment, his classic muscle car, his “boys” (Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke play his wingmen) and his “girls” (an ever-revolving cast of red-hot one-night stands). Being a good Catholic kid, he cares about family and church, too, though it’s a running joke to see how the family (Tony Danza, Glenne Headley and Brie Larson) eats dinner and attends mass, rarely giving either matter their undivided attention. Sunday confession offers weekly absolution for Jon’s carnal transgressions, and the meathead duly incorporates his prayer-reciting penance into his workout routine.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about “Don Jon’s Addiction” is the fact that Gordon-Levitt could have spun a porn-free version of this love story as an all-audience crowdpleaser, but instead, he opted to engage with what’s shaping up to be a real pandemic, as porn increasingly infects the expectations men put on the opposite sex. Where Steve McQueen’s “Shame” took the more obtuse artfilm approach to this sex-obsessed phenom, Gordon-Levitt weaves the topic into a broadly accessible romantic comedy, one that ultimately uses its in-your face style to sneak a few old-fashioned insights about how self-centered guys can learn to respect their partners.
Porn isn’t the only culprit here, either, as the pic implicates everything from body-baring advertisements to hand-me-down machismo (Danza, perfectly cast as Jon’s caveman dad, complements his onscreen son on his new “piece of ass”). Gordon-Levitt’s script can be a bit on-the-nose at times, but that’s an indulgence easily forgiven in a debut feature, and this ensemble winningly sells the movie’s tricky tonal mix — none better than Julianne Moore, who plays an unexpected confidante Jon meets while attending night school, using her gift for nuance to spin a small part into the film’s soul.
On the opposite extreme, guido culture takes a hit: Not since “The Sopranos” has Jersey’s Italian-American contingent been so ruthlessly reduced — although this time, the whackings are all self-inflicted. While the pic’s bridge-and-tunnel stereotypes may border on the cartoonish, in the view of many American males, Jon is living the dream.
That’s the mindset Gordon-Levitt so effectively manages to correct over the course of Jon’s partial awakening. The self-assured helmer shows genuine affection for his characters, balancing their openly satiric qualities with a disarmingly sincere human center. Meanwhile, the film’s visual style complements its slick lensing with flashy cutting, choosing angles that critique cinema’s tendency to objectify by calling attention to that very language — a strategy extended via carefully selected porn clips and Nathan Johnson’s ironic club-music score.