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For a directorial and screenwriting debut, Joseph Gordon-Levitt scarcely could've gone more gonzo than "Don Jon" and still opened in 2,400 theaters. Explicitly (and yes, it's explicit) "Don Jon" is a romantic comedy about porn addiction, in which a young man who has no problem bedding just about any lady he notices at the club still prefers digital dames. Implicitly it's about fantasy and about control, and what happens when you no longer control your fantasies of control.
This is all heavier fare than your typical date movie. It has probably already traumatized thousands of couples, for the better.
Early on the titular Lothario (played by Gordon-Levitt like a screen test for a "Sopranos" henchman) lays out a compelling case as to why the fantasy trumps the reality, even when the reality imitates an Axe body spray commercial. Mostly his bedroom complaints come down to the various chores a gentleman is expected to do with his mouth, and the onerous lameness of boinking like missionaries, and the pesky confines of prophylactics, and the rote depositing of his raw genetic material in same. To Jon, the porn fantasy is at once more wild and less messy, and for a guy who keeps his apartment as fastidiously clean as he keeps his browsing history filthy, neither of these are minor points.
As typically happens in this subgenre (Box Office Mojo dubs it "womanizer / cad / player") our hero runs across A Woman Who Changes Everything, here in the earthly form of Scarlett Johansson, an eye-shadow aficionada who enjoys sappy romance films and whom Jon describes as the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. As Jon is a highly visual creature, this leads him to fall in love with her instantly. When he takes her home to meet the parents (Tony Danza, gratingly, and Glenne Headly, with desperation), she tops the charts: Mom sees her as a family type, and Dad sees her as a slab of meat sporting the measurements of Scarlett Johansson. The girlfriend cajoles Jon to go back to school, to pick out curtains with her. Jon, though, can't quit the porn habit. She walks in on him, he begins a self-destructive series of cover-up moves, and things get worse before they get better, no matter how many Lord's Prayers he mutters while doing chin-ups.
His recovery is set in motion after meeting a fragile, blunt fellow student (Julianne Moore, 21 years Gordon-Levitt's elder) in his night class. She asks him questions that eventually form the moral core to "Don Jon," which despite its threadbare patches — some uneven performances, an overreliance on its lead character, a too-brisk third act — manages to sneak some vitamins into what could've been just voyeuristic scolding. When does any vice go from being that thing we use to get through the day to becoming poison? That could be smut or smokes or wine or "Call of Duty 4" or texting or jogging or Facebook or sci-fi novels or plastic surgery or prayer or eBay or yoga or any of the other one zillion things that allow human beings to check out for a while that can metastasize into semi-permanent vacations from reality. For Jon, change means relinquishing control. As it probably does for lots of people.
"Don Jon" settles on a happy ending (of course). But unlike many of its rom-com brethren, it arrives by unsettling means, and rather than overhauling its protagonist, it brings him to a place where he can be more himself, brightly. Gordon-Levitt is 32 years old, and this amounts to an impressive piece of work.