Here is a movie bursting with energy and confidence. It's a movie with lots of things that it wants to say, even though it's never quite sure how to say them. It's a movie with likable performances and charm to spare. But in trying to tackle ideas like contemporary gender roles, self-absorption, misogyny and American sexuality, Levitt has made a movie that's rather self-absorbed and a little misogynistic.
Don Jon is a movie about the emptiness we can sometimes feel when other people fail to meet our expectations of the Way Things Ought To Be. Jon is bombarded by a world in which women are made out to be surgically enhanced fuck dolls, whether they're dancing at a club, selling lingerie, showing up in Carl's Jr. commercials or, of course, in his beloved porn clips. He's disappointed when actual sex isn't anything like porn, leaving him unfulfilled by sex and turning him to watch more porn. The best sex he has is with himself, because that's the only time it can be exactly what he wants it to be. He is a completely selfish character.
Barbara doesn't fare much better, though. She initially seems to be interested in a connection that's more than just physical, but before long it becomes clear that she, like Jon, is trying to shape her world to match the one that exists in her mind -- the World that Should Be. Hers is informed by Hollywood romances and outdated ideas about what successful men should or should not be. She's ultimately just as selfish as Jon. The movie missteps in a big way by turning Barbara into a monster -- a shallow, manipulative opportunist lacking in love and compassion. It's an unflattering portrayal of women, and though Don Jon is clear to point out that she's just "one type" of woman, Barbara makes up one half of the leading females in the movie.
Julianne Moore is a welcome addition to any movie, even if her character is one of the movie's big problems. It's not her performance, which is good as always, nor is it her chemistry with Levitt -- she brings out a looser, more relaxed side of him as an actor. No, the problem is that Don Jon replaces its Barbara Problem with an Esther Problem. Barbara exists only to punish Jon; Esther is there solely to enlighten him. The women are present only for what they can do for the male lead. Moore creates more of a character than anyone else, mostly because she's given a small amount of back story that's handled with some restraint and, to be blunt, she's the best actor in the movie.
I'm complaining a lot about the politics of the screenplay, but I shouldn't let that overshadow the fact that it's a good movie, well-directed. I'm not the first to mention Edgar Wright in relation to Don Jon's editing, but its an apt comparison; many of the movie's biggest laughs come from the rhythms and repetition of the editing -- the way that Jon's laptop booting up can provide a punchline to a scene, or the way that Jon is shown cursing out every car on the road right before Levitt smash cuts to him walking up to church. The editing isn't always just used for comedic effect, though. There's some very strong visual storytelling throughout the movie that's only made possible by the way that certain images (like Jon walking down the hallway of his gym for a workout/confession) repeat themselves over and over. When those shots begin to change a little, so does Jon.
There's a lot to like in Don Jon, particularly as a first effort from an actor-turned-director. Levitt avoids several of the pitfalls of those that came before him; his movie is not as self-important as Ordinary People, not as precious as Garden State. This is a movie that celebrates being a first movie -- one full of filmmaking ideas from a technical standpoint. It's the kind of movie where you can tell the filmmaker lived with it in his head for a long time before it got made. The movie suggests that Levitt could have a future as a director, even though his screenwriting could use a little work. His heart is in the right place with Don Jon, a movie that ultimately wants to be sweet and believe that positive change is possible. Unfortunately like so many other romantic comedies, the movie seems to think that change is only possible after meeting one magical person.