Dir. Joseph Gordon Levitt
The first time I ever consciously watched anything with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it was in Rian Johnson’s brilliant Brick, a twisty film noir set in a modern high school. As fascinating as I thought the film was, Gordon Levitt was its absolute standout. I remember saying “There’s your next Hollywood leading man” to anyone I could, so convinced I was of his impending stardom.
This has proved to be one of my (extremely rare) successful prophecies. Over the last decade, Gordon Levitt has raised his profile to become one of the most interesting young actors of his generation, so it should come as no surprise that his latest effort, one in which he makes his debut as both a writer and a director, should arrive with exactly the same preternaturally confident self-assuredness as the rest of his meteoric career.
First and foremost, he’s given himself a hell of a fun character to play. “Don” Jon is a “Jersey Shore”-style meathead, all buffed bod, slicked hair and a penchant for rating every woman he and his friends ogle in clubs with a numerical designation. Only a scarce few things matter to him, as he explains to us: “my body, my place, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls and my porn.” In his lunkheaded way, he almost achieves a Zen-like simplicity, save for the fact that everything he cares about is surface deep, as clean and free of grit as the floors in his apartment that he cleans and polishes each day with OCD fervor. He’s a guy who dutifully goes to mass every week with his family, but only in order to wash away that week’s sins in his confession — sins that include a weekly count of the number of times he’s had out-of-wedlock sex and the staggering number of times he’s masturbated to porn.
In short, he’s a one-tantric pony with a serious sex addiction and a worldview as narrow as an envelope slit. When he finally spots a “dime” in the form of Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he tries to pounce early but gets rebuffed. Not one to give in easily, he pours on the charm over the next few weeks until she finally succumbs, but only on her terms: Their friends need to meet, they need to meet each other’s parents, and he needs to start taking night courses so he can find a better job than being a bartender.
To this he happily agrees: For the first time in his life, Jon has found someone he cares about a fraction more than himself, and the feeling of powerlessness is intoxicating. That is, until she finds out about his undeterred Internet porn addiction. In the aftermath, Jon finds himself having to reach out to people he went out of his way to avoid before, including Esther (Julianne Moore), a much-older woman in his night class, who seems to have a strange affinity for him.
As a screenwriter, Gordon Levitt shows a deft comic touch (Jon’s sister, played by Brie Larson, almost never diverts her attention from her cell phone; his father, played amusingly by Tony Danza, treats him as more a romantic rival than a son). It’s also clear he’s spent some time investigating the type of personality that befits men like Jon. For all his crass carnality and swagger, he’s completely obsessive and OCD about his apartment’s cleanliness, and his own general physical perfection, which leaves him as vulnerable as a field mouse despite his best efforts. So desirous of vapid, surface perfection, he’s utterly bereft of the layers that lie just underneath the surface of things. When all you can see is the glossy shine on the mirror and never your own true reflection, you have no idea who you really are. In describing his love of Barbara to his equally lunk-headed friends, he can only describe her as a being more beautiful than anyone else he’s ever seen, as if that competition alone can justify his feelings about her.
Gordon-Levitt is less successful with the female characters in the film. Esther, in particular, is more or less a plot device with a little bit of an unconvincing backstory attached. From a narrative point of view, it makes sense to keep Barbara at emotional arm’s length, as that’s how Jon sees her, but when his focus shifts to the sensitive, mercurial Esther, Gordon Levitt is equally unable to conjure up a proper character to promote, other than fitting in smoothly as Jon’s next big life experience.
There are also moments where his inexperience as a director becomes a bit obvious, in seemingly small details, where his artistic inclination fails the immutable laws of physics (the sound of a wad of Kleenex hitting a metal trashcan shouldn’t sound like crumpled up, heavy-weight sheaf of onion skin, even if it’s a metaphorically significant sound effect in the course of the film).
Still, it’s a reasonably impressive debut, filled with a good deal of humor and candor into the kind of meathead mind most of us would prefer not to have to delve into for very long. I’m not sure it could have sustained itself much beyond its 90 minute runtime, but as a first-time film, it marks yet another auspicious earmark in the career of a kid with star-making talent.