So adorable little Tommy Solomon from 3rd Rock from the Sun is all grown up and is now not only a major movie star but a writing/directing/acting triple threat! This can mean only one thing:
I’m very, very old.
Okay, it can mean more than one thing, such as that the intrepid Joseph Gordon-Levitt is once again stretching his boundaries, bringing him yet another step closer to being King of the Universe. I’ve been a fan of his film work from early on, after he delivered one fearless, commanding and utterly diverse performance after another in the likes of Mysterious Skin (2004), Brick (2005) and The Lookout (2007). Terrific films all, incidentally, which reflects another aspect of JGL that can’t be overstated: The guy has good taste in scripts. Even his more mainstream, bigger-budget projects are a cut above average: He lent valuable support to Inception (2009) and Lincoln (2012), held the center of Looper, one of last year’s highlights, and even his goofy bike-messenger thriller Premium Rush (2012) was way more fun than it had any right to be.
And now he returns to his indie roots with his debut as writer/director/star of Don Jon, a cheerful comedy-romance about internet porn addiction. How better to commemorate the occasion than to bring in his previous comedy-romance effort, 2009’s sleeper hit (500 Days of) Summer, for a Smackdown in Levittown?
Well, I guess watching internet porn would really be a better way to commemorate it, but this comes a close second, so…
If you’re having trouble fathoming why the writer-director of Don Jon would cast himself so far against type as an ultra-macho, narcissistic, womanizing guido, it’s because you have not yet viewed the scene wherein his character receives a fully clothed but smashingly effective stand-up lap dance from a never-sexier Scarlett Johansson. Dude is no dummy, is the point here. But beyond that, the casting works in the sense that the character would be all but insufferable if played by anyone with less inherent affability and underlying sweetness. On the surface, Jon is a fairly familiar character: an iron-pumping he-man by day, a club-going chick magnet by night, a dutiful church-going son of cartoonish Italian parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) on the weekends and, in his private after-hours, an extremely avid internet porn connoisseur. So avid, in fact, that (as he explains in highly colorful and amusing narration) he prefers it to actual sex.
Enter Johansson as Barbara, the dream girl he falls head over heels for, a catty, curvy knockout who has apparently modeled her raspy voice, accent, and personality on Adriana from The Sopranos. The affectionate, playful couple hits an early bump in the road when she unwittingly discovers and expresses puritanical disgust toward Jon’s main vice. Helplessly infatuated with her, he obediently agrees to go cold turkey but soon finds that old habits aren’t so easy to break; he continues to secretly favor his porn over his nubile dream girl. It eventually takes an open-minded, nurturing and perceptive older classmate (Julianne Moore, giving her most relaxed performance in years) to get him to appreciate the value of romantic human connection and mutual respect.
It begins at the end, which is to say, the five hundredth day of Summer, which is to say that Tom (JGL) has just broken up with the perky, quirky Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who he believed to be the great love of his life. Alas, their relationship only managed to last for… well, take a guess how long. We then skip back in time and leap around the notable moments of the aforementioned 500 days (with helpful title cards to keep us oriented), gradually filling in the gaps of this sweet but inevitably doomed relationship. In doing so, we learn that Tom first spotted Summer at the greeting card company where he works, fell instantly head over heels, and gradually won her heart, or at the very least, her interest and affection. But as strong as the rapport is between them and as much as they have in common, their agendas (refreshingly gender-reversed from the usual) are clearly at odds: He wants a serious relationship; she just wants a frivolous fling.
So in broken chronology, we see the highs, lows, and turning-points of the entire relationship, depicted in a naturalistic style for the most part, but with the occasional wacky flight of movie-homage fancy thrown in for good measure, be it a spoof of hip ’60s French films or a big, corny musical number. The distinctive visual style throughout helped land first-time director Marc Webb the plum Amazing Spider-man gig (for better or worse), and the script is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose latest romance, The Spectacular Now, is earning raves.
Stripped down to basics, the two have remarkably similar plotlines: Boy meets Girl, thinks she’s The One; (SPOILER ALERT) Boy loses Girl and realizes how thoroughly he’d been idealizing her and deluding himself; Boy moves on, the experience having helped him healthily evolve. Both are slight, breezy affairs with generous doses of offbeat humor, amusing supporting characters, and snappy music montages. And both are strongly graced by the anchoring presence of Gordon-Levitt, utterly likable and compelling in roles that are near polar opposites.
The main difference between these films is one of ambition: Don Jon is a modest, unassuming trifle that is pretty much exactly as superficially entertaining and ultimately disposable as it seeks to be. But Summer clearly aims to be this generation’s answer to Annie Hall, a noble ambition, but one it falls far short of.
Unlike its predecessor, Summer has nothing insightful to say about, well, anything, really. The fundamental problem this couple has is laid bare from the outset: He loves her, and she doesn’t love him; he wants long-term, she wants short. Nothing that follows takes us any deeper than that. Instead of digging deeper and fleshing out these characters and revealing their layers and flaws and exactly what makes them mismatched, the script simply chronicles the relationship’s formulation, step by step, pads the running time with a lot of idle chit-chat and flirtation, treats us to the occasional whimsical fantasy sequence (of which the bubbly musical number is easily the high point), and then wallows with Tom in post breakup misery until a painfully cutesy denouement. Boiled down to its essence, it’s a story of two nice people who simply wanted different things from each other. The only thing it leaves you pondering after the credits roll is: “So?”
Which isn’t to say that Don Jon digs all that deeply either. “Thinking of sexual partners as people instead of conquests is a crucial step toward maturity,” is its singular lesson. But unlike Summer, it has an edge and a verve and a breathless energy that holds your attention from start to finish. Far removed from bland sweetie-pie Tom, Jon is a swaggering, objectifying narcissistic jerk who would fit right in with the cast of Jersey Shore, but Gordon-Levitt manages to give the guy a touching vulnerability that compels us to continue following him through the repetitious routine that is the script’s main conceit.
Jon’s life, you see, is an endless cycle of cleaning his apartment, picking up hotties at a dance club while his pals (played by Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke) enviously look on, confessing his “sins” at church with a beguiling mix of sheepishness and pride, working out at the gym while reciting his assigned Hail Marys (talk about multi-tasking!), and having dinner with his bickering parents, who are essentially pale, warmed-over imitations of Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts on Everybody Loves Raymond. The family scenes are the most broadly drawn and thus weakest, but by and large, the movie zips along for 90 almost continuously entertaining minutes. Gordon-Levitt’s freshman effort as writer-director shows a world of promise in both areas; his style is one of rapid-fire dialogue, jumpy montages and nearly zero flab. The movie looks and feels as sleek and rigorously trained as Gordon-Levitt’s newly buffed-out physique, and somehow, its repetitions almost never get tiresome.
Both of these movies, thanks in no small part to JGL’s ever-affable presence, are light on their feet, easily digestible diversions that are perfectly fine choices for home viewing. Neither demands to be seen, but of the two, the easy choice is the dark-toned edginess of Don Jon over the empty-headed, cute (500 Days of) Summer. An easy shorthand as to which you’d prefer can be found via its leading ladies: Are you Team Zooey, or Team Scarlett? Personally, I call that a no-brainer.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an endless cycle to continue repeating.