Somewhere between your typical rom-com and a biting subversion of your typical rom-com lies Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's clever, well-intentioned look at everything the genre has been doing wrong for the past many years. From the get-go, we have something altogether more gutteral than what you'd find in your usual Valentine's Weekend releases. Yes, JGL's hero follows tradition by packing a deal-breaker vice, but instead of being engaged to another woman (The Wedding Planner), living with his parents (Failure to Launch), or being just not that into her (He's Just Not That Into You), Gordon-Levitt's titular "Don" Jon Martello Jr. entertains a chronic addiction to pornography. So, right out the gate, it's already more interesting than anything with Gerard Butler.
In his directorial debut, Gordon-Levitt works to ground all of the tropes to which we're culturally accustomed. He subverts the picture perfect but colorless leading lady with Scarlett Johansson's crass, acerbic, ultimately abrasive Barbara Sugarman. He opts out of the traditional meet-cute in favor of a lustful exchange of glances between two people who share nothing more than a physical attraction. He replaces your standard pristine backdrop with a club-laden Jersey, injecting a snapshot of road rage every so often for good (albeit artistically clumsy) measure. At every step, as loudly as Gordon-Levitt seems to be screaming his deconstructions, we have a bit of fun. In large part, this is because the people playing along are doing so with gusto.
The usually affable Gordon-Levitt doesn't earn, or even ask for, our affections as the decidedly dense Don Jon, but he's a hoot when he yammers on thickly to his bros and superiorly meathead father, played with a hysterical lack of tact by Tony Danza. Johansson, likewise embedded in such a thick gravy of the Dirty Jerz, carries her domineering character well past the beneficial chuckles of familiar stereotypes into areas of authentic flavor. And midway through the show, we are treated to the usual flair of Julianne Moore, sans Mid-Atlantic accent, careening through the extremes of human emotion as the sort of character she plays best: the loon. We have a great time with all of them — the stars and their back-up players (Glenne Headly is good for a handful of laughs, as is Jeremy Luke as Don Jon's perpetually agitated pal) — and are only shortchanged when it comes to the landing of Don Jon's sincerity.
Having so much fun with its quirks, Don Jon forgets to lend any real weight to the central conflict of its hero's addiction (perhaps why the film dropped the word from its original title). It forgets to flesh out its central character in either direction, or to beef up the leading lady enough to provide a substantial opponent to the long line of Rachel McAdams roles it seems to think so lowly of. Placing such a heavy focus on the flimsiness of the rom-com genre, Don Jon doesn't exactly provide something with more substance underneath as much as it does provide something with a more inventive surface.
But its surface does offer a good enough time to make Don Jon work. It won't change your mind about romantic comedies, offer new insight into the struggles of addiction, or least of all alter the way you look at Jersey, but as a song-and-dance, the film and its performers are charming, endearing, and fun.
Oh, and there's a whole lot of porn in this movie, so keep that in mind.