Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ain't too complicated - at least, that's what he tells us, the audience, in voice-over. "I only care about these things," he says, "My body - my ride - my family - my church - my friends - my girls... and my porn" He then goes on to extol, in his casual and almost philosophical way how his attitude to porn ain't bad at all. If one can call a spoof on a New Jersey "type" (by that I mean ala Jersey Shore, full-blown Italian, as a New Jerseyian I can tell you, don't worry, we're not ALL like this, I think anyway), Jon is that, and Gordon-Levitt knows it (let's call him JGL from here on, make it easier).
He hangs out with the same three friends, always at the bar, always picking up the same kind of girls and giving them the one to ten ranking. And of course, one night, he meets his 'ten' in Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, who, to be sure, has rarely looked more attractive, which is part of the point of the character on a surface level at least), and falls head over heels.
The porn. Oh, the not-real-but-enticing sex acts and booty on display! As we gather from his confessions to the priest, which, as with everything else, carries the air of ritual that is just 'What It Is' in capital letters, he goes for a lot. He doesn't sugar-coat it, his masturbation levels are on a chart so high that MTV's Beavis and Butt-head would look on in stupefied awe (so much to the point that it's, at one point in the film when Jon is at his lowest, is comically a LARGE amount of doing-the-deed with porn). Or, in other words, a goofier, less withdrawn version of Michael Fassbender in Shame.
But, hey, it's porn, it don't harm nobody, Jon tells us, and all guys do it, he also explains. What he doesn't seem to get, and what drives the conflict of the whole film forward, is that it's not about the porn, per-say. It's about human connectivity, of actually having the give-and-take aspect of a relationship.
Barbara seems to get this, perhaps on an intuitive level, but what makes Don Jon so winning, funny, and dynamic as a romantic comedy (with some dramatic elements, especially in the third act, which I'll get to in a moment), and surprisingly uncompromising, is that JGL doesn't let Barbara off the hook as a character.
While Jon has his porn of the fantastical flesh-humping-sucking-et-all kind, Barbara's "porn" is emotional: she's obsessed with soapy romantic comedy/dramas (featuring by the way, uproarious cameos in a film-within-the-film Jon/Barbara watch with Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway - we may have seen such rom-com parodies before, but it's still never not funny), as we see her face completely lightened up as she is watching these stories of complete fantasy - in its own way just as emotionally manipulative (but in their own way, I might argue, more dishonest when it comes to certain parts of basic relationships, but that's another article altogether).
She has this own crutch to her, but the other part is that, in a way, Jon has met his match, but perhaps something he does and doesn't deserve: someone who will control him, dig her nails into him, to try and make him her's. In one of the sexiest/funniest scenes in a long time, we see how Barbara operates as she does a kind of standing-lap-dance-talk with Don outside his apartment door, grinding against him, and teasing him with the possibilities of what could come... if only she could meet his friends and his parents (this after maybe the second or third time they've met).
The sexual tension is palpable, but the dialog is extremely witty and deadpan here, a logical extension of a screwball comedy from the 30's let loose with 21st century R-rated clothing. When the director finally let's his character, and us, for a breath, it's hard to stop laughing at his discomfort.
There's more to this control aspect that is more serious, or given a dose of reality: a great little scene where the two characters go to some store and Jon talks about the (genuine) joy he has in keeping his apartment clean. He is met by a demurred Barbara who doesn't understand why he doesn't just get someone else to clean the apartment. It's a small argument scene that dissolves under the circumstances (mainly being Jon still being so crazy for Barbara, perhaps on a physical level but maybe something more, that's the tricky part audiences will have to read into themselves), but is indicative of their larger problem as a couple.
So by the time the big "reveal" comes with the porn - this isn't spoiling so much as we know this from the trailer, and it's a given due to the whole conflict of Jon's "Addiction" (by the way, the original title of the film was "Don Jon's Addiction" before "Addiction" was seen as too negative a word or something with such a film), it comes as no surprise how Barbara acts. He lacks the real connectivity with her - after what he describes as the best (possible) sex when it happens, he goes off while she's asleep and opens up that good ol' laptop - and she lacks the slightest bit of patience with such a predilection with sex.
This leads to the other main relationship in the film, which JGL is careful to develop not too quickly; as Jon starts to go to classes (you know, another Barbara suggestion, though not a bad one) to move on from being a jockish bartender, he meets/is engaged in conversation with Esther (Julianne Moore), another, older student. She notices his 'habit' by chance and suddenly they strike up an uneasy friendship - which becomes, or could become, something more in the third act.
But she, like Jon, is pretty damaged (without too many details, we see for the first time crying, one of those excellent Julianne Moore moments where it's just *there*, no pretense, no BS, we know something is not right from there, even with her charming personality in upcoming scenes). The other aspect to Esther that helps Jon is her attitude to what he's doing with himself - seeing through him to what is really at the core. This may be a slight flaw on the writer/director's part to spell it out just a bit too clearly, but in a way Jon really needs this more than we do, especially as, deep down, he has an emptiness that he tries to fill with porn or the gym or his friends.
Don Jon is a very funny movie most of the time, by how naturally he interacts with characters around him - his friends feel like long-time, typical but not completely cartoonish male troglodites out for a little tail - and the way he shoots much of the film is clever; there's a visual trope that he repeats, which makes sense for the character. Every time he goes to the gym, it's a same shot of him walking down the hallway, or going up to a church, sitting with his family, and then in confession.
Later, as his face goes through its contortions as he, in also very funny (because it's so self-conscious) voice-over, extols how he is not an addict, "I mean," he says, "I went to school with guys who smoked crack!" These shots are the same as well. Same for those scenes with his family around the table at his parents house (Tony Danza and Glenne Headley, with Brie Larson as a quasi "Silent Bob" sister who barely has a line in the film, a one-note joke basically but it's fine).
So then it's a little surprising that my two problems were with a stylistic choice - when it comes time for the scenes between Jon and Esther, they're shot in more carefree, loose, hand-held style (not the only time, it also happens when Jon/Barbara fight), and it just feels *too* loose in a way, it's hard to describe but it started to just feel messy in a way that didn't jive with not so much the rest of the film but the context that the scenes were set in. There's a way to do that hand-held style and make it less jerky, and that would be the only stylistic misstep Gordon-Levitt took there.
As for Jon's family, while there are some solid laughs to be had when watching Danza explode multiple times as Headley tries to be the soothing mom, it comes off after the first scene like sitcom fodder. Not bad, but not up to par with the rest of the writing and dynamics in the rest of the film (perhaps it was part of JGL's point to show them as over-the-top caricatures, but it doesn't work when the other three principals have such dimensions AND are still types in their own respects).
And like any good post-modern style critique of the romantic comedy - others I might throw in, starting with Annie Hall, would be High Fidelity and, on a lighter level, Love, Actually - it finds a balance between showing up the genre for the major problems that come with sticking to its conventions, while still providing us characters to care about and connect with, conflicts that seem within reason, and, with warts and all, we want them to find if not definite love then something close to a start for their lives going forward.
Oh, and humor. Genuine, sexy, sometimes off-the-wall humor (Marky Mark on the soundtrack!). And confidence to know when to keep a joke going and when to pull back to sincerity and heartfelt drama. Between this and Enough Said, it's a nice time to be back in the genre, for a few moments anyway. As an aside it's also fun to see such Jersey behavior and even spot some sights (they shot, in part, in Hackensack, New Jersey, which is right near where I live and is fairly accurate to the some of the local color and mood, if not in full).
One more note: the Church itself, it should be said, also gets some criticism in the film, without coming out and just saying "this is all BS", this too is an area that JGL is able to touch upon the false promise of "cleansing" of sins, a more comical version of something Scorsese's been doing for forty years as a director in his films. I mean, didn't Jon see Mean Streets? It'd solve his problems in five minutes of Harvey Keitel voice-over and hand-over-a-candle-in-existential dread. But I digress.