By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Oct 31, 2013 at 2:36 PM

I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I mean, how can you not?

He’s an exciting and charismatic actor, whether he’s doing comedy, drama or random dance breaks at the Oscars. He picks great movies to do – "Inception," "Looper," "50/50," the list goes on – with interesting, inventive directors. He just seems like a gentleman and an all-around swell guy, and I don’t think it hurts that he’s rather dashing as well (ladies, amirite?). I’ll admit to finding any plausible excuse to wear a shirt, tie and vest after seeing "Inception" in the hopes that someone would say I looked like him (nobody did).

I’m not saying that I have a bit of a man-crush on JGL … but I’m pretty much saying that I have a bit of a man-crush on JGL. So the fact that I didn’t like "Don Jon," his debut as a writer-director, is kind of awkward. I don’t want to stop getting invites to the monthly JGL Fan Club screenings of "Premium Rush," but his new movie is a clumsy mess, a first attempt at writing and directing that really plays like a first attempt at writing and directing.

Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello, a slick-haired Jersey boy who lives his life in a strict routine of working out, cleaning, praying, eating with the family (Tony Danza, Glenne Headly and a near-silent Brie Larson), hanging with his bros and hooking up with girls from the local club. Oh, and masturbating to a whole Internet’s worth of porn. That’s his true calling in life, and he easily prefers cuddling up to the enticing glow of his laptop (which he doesn’t seem to use for anything else) to any actual woman he’s met. For one, porn actresses seem up for anything; his real life conquests, less so.

The romantic ménage a trois between Jon, his laptop and his hand gets a shake-up when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, outrageously alluring even with a thick Jersey Shore accent) at the club. It’s instant infatuation for Jon, but even with seemingly the girl of his dreams on his arm, he still can’t pry himself away from his porn.

One could never blame the failure of "Don Jon" on a lack of ambition. The film attempts to take on the objectification of women, the addiction of a routine, the effects of the media and a dab of religion (albeit barely), all while trying to tiptoe the line between drama and comedy with a hard-R, "Shame"-lite script about porn addiction. Even for a veteran director, it’d be tough to find the right balance.

Gordon-Levitt puts in a noble effort, but pretty early on in his cinematic juggling act, it seems clear anything resembling real people or reality in general were the first things to hit to floor. The dialogue, the characters, the dramas; none of them ring true. For a movie all about learning to truly connect with people, "Don Jon" seems deeply disconnected from any actual human behavior.

Almost every character is a cartoon. Jon’s parents are loud, played-out Italian-American caricatures, with his mother desperately craving a grandkid and his father permanently stuck in a wife-beater, slurping up noodles and avidly watching the game on TV. His friends are obnoxious misogynistic bros, loudly bantering about "dimes" all the time.

In an upsetting move for a movie with its eye on female objectification, Barbara goes from dream girl to an unreasonable harpie in the second act. She irately condemns Jon for his porn addiction (a bit of an overreaction but sure, understandable) and causes a scene at a department store because she doesn’t want Jon to clean anymore because it’s not sexy. That has to be a first.

The hope is to show Barbara is just as brainwashed by her dreamy romance films – amusingly mocked by Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway at one point – as Jon is by his porn. To swiftly and inhumanely turn her into a shrill control freak with no other depth, however, collides uncomfortably with the film’s anti-objectification goals. It sacrifices her character, turning her preposterously irrational (who gets mad at their significant other for cleaning? Who I ask?!), for the sake of Jon’s growth and the movie’s messages. And while Jon gets some redemption by the end, she still gets none of the script’s sympathies. 

Oh well, at least her character isn’t alone in her ridiculousness. The script pushes all of the characters’ quirks, neuroses and clichéd types so far into the audience’s face that it’s hard to take any of it all that seriously. I suppose that’s where the comedy comes in, but the script’s tonally uneasy attempts to play off these extreme, overblown personalities for humor – like a seemingly endless dinnertime argument between Jon and his dad about TiVo – don’t hit their marks. There are a few clever lines scattered here or there, but for the most part, the film is just witlessly and relentlessly profane at full volume.

The only character worth spending any time with is Jon’s sister, and she only has one line in the whole film. What a waste of a perfectly good Brie Larson. Her eyes make the most out of the role, though.

The closest Gordon-Levitt gets to something resembling human interactions is in the last third, when during his night classes, Jon develops a relationship with Esther (even the names sound wrong in "Don Jon"), a mature, older woman played with blessed humanity by Julianne Moore. Their interactions seem genuine, and it’s a relief to see characters talking and interacting with a semblance of how people actually behave.

Gordon-Levitt’s script, however, seems unsure of how to get her character and subplot actually into the story. As a result, their meet-uncute (he walks past her sobbing in the school’s doorway; she catches him watching porn on his iPhone) and her resulting interest in his life seems contrived. There’s no reason for her to take interest in this crude, porn-obsessed womanizer, much less talk to him after her long-forgotten cry session.

I’m glad their relationship is in the movie because it’s one of the few times "Don Jon" sets aside cartoonish caricatures, settles down tonally and allows people to have real, sincere and even occasionally sweet conversations in "Don Jon." But the setup still makes it feel like fiction. I buy these interactions; I just don’t buy these characters ever having them.

Not helping matters is Gordon-Levitt’s heavy hand on the camerawork and editing. One very intimate late sequence between Esther and Jon is shot in frustratingly shaky handheld that constantly pokes you in the side and shouts, "Look! This is such an intimate moment!"

It’s still preferable to the first half’s imitation of Jon’s guido hair: overdone, stiff slickness. Like much in "Don Jon," the constant flash – sound cues, sharp quick editing – gets tediously relentless after a point and feels like Gordon-Levitt is showing off a bag of tricks rather than using them for a point. It’s the same with a late visual twist involving Jon’s workout routine and the religious commentary that never actually forms: They’re less of complete thoughts and more just a thing the writer-director could do for show.

It is JGL’s first effort, and it’s not just my love for the actor that makes me say it’s a noble failure. Over time, he’ll learn that less tends to be more, to trust his actors instead of relying on overdone techniques, to get a stronger feel for tone and to comfortably balance characters and themes. There’s really nowhere else to go but up after "Don Jon."

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.