Joseph Gordon-Levitt scores big as writer/director of Don Jon

by Mark Burger

Joseph Gordon- Levitt scores big as writer/director of Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the latest actor to step behind the cameras as writer and director of Don Jon, and the result is a triumph for the multitalented multi-hyphenate and a treat for moviegoers.

Gordon-Levitt plays the title character, a good Catholic boy who’s a part-time bartender and full-time ladies’ man. He also has a predilection for online porn. Even when he scores with a beauty — which is more often than not — he prefers the simple solitude of being alone with his computer.

On Sundays, he attends church and goes to confession (among the film’s funnier moments), then has dinner with his parents, where he and his father, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza), wear matching sleeveless T-shirts and argue incessantly while his mother Angela (Glenne Headly) pesters him about finding the right girl and his sister Monica (Brie Larson) texts incessantly.

It’s only when Jon pursues a “meaningful relationship” with neighborhood beauty Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) that he is forced to rethink his priorities and his propensity for porn — with surprising results. Barbara, spoiled and not a little manipulative, even convinces him to attend night school, where he befriends fellow student Esther (Julianne Moore).

There are some inevitably raunchy moments in Don Jon, but remarkably the film isn’t tasteless. It’s also witty, smart (but not smug) and sometimes sharply observant. The film is set in New Jersey, and there are some priceless jokes regarding Garden State stereotypes. Gordon-Levitt has also penned some snappy repartee in league with Woody Allen. In addition to being one of our most versatile young actors, there’s no question he has an equally bright feature as a filmmaker.

Like last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, Don Jon subverts many of the expectations associated with romantic comedies — in a very entertaining and perceptive way. And, like so many actors-turned-directors, Gordon-Levitt allows his co-stars ample opportunity to thrive and shine.

Johansson is seductive and saucy, but there’s much more to the character than just sex appeal. Danza (looking remarkably fit) and Headly shine as quintessentially overbearing yet adoring parents, and Larson is terrific as the younger sister who’s sharper than she lets on. Best of all is Moore, endearingly bittersweet and unfailingly brilliant. This is one of the year’s most delightful ensembles, and Don Jon one of the year’s brightest movies.

Killer thriller: Star-studded cast brings heft to Prisoners

Prisoners, which marks the noteworthy Englishlanguage debut of award-winning Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, features an Aaron Guzikowski screenplay that unfolds like the sort of novel described as a page-turner. Although long and sometimes convoluted, the film succeeds in building and sustaining suspense throughout.

The film focuses on two suburban couples (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) whose young daughters (Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons) mysteriously vanish after Thanksgiving dinner. Every parent’s nightmare has come true, and in the film each is understandably devastated.

When the principal suspect, the mentally impaired Alex Jones (Paul Dano with a greasy Joe Spinell-type hairdo), is released due to lack of evidence, it goads Jackman’s Keller Dover into a seemingly unthinkable action. He kidnaps Alex, holds him hostage in an abandoned apartment building owned by his late father and proceeds to methodically torture him into revealing the whereabouts of the missing girls.

Prisoners is certainly ambitious, attempting to be a psychodrama, morality play and whodunit rolled into one. Thanks to Villeneuve’s deft direction and the collective conviction of its cast, to a great extent it succeeds.

The film isn’t lacking for potential suspects, either.

Nearly every major character falls under suspicion, if only briefly. Even Jake Gyllenhaal, as the earnest and increasingly obsessed Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a little on the twitchy side.

Among the all-star cast, acting honors go to Jackman, Dano and Melissa Leo (terrific as Alex’s aunt). Actually, everyone’s in good form. It’s nice to see Howard play a more reticent character, although the talented Bello spends much of the film sedated. With the invaluable assistance of ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (10 Oscar nominations and counting), Villeneuve vividly captures a mood of desperation and terror.

There are, however, some nagging questions that go unanswered, but to explore them in any detail would mean divulging too many key story elements. Nevertheless, given the cast and story, it’s hard not to get caught up in the narrative. This is a film built on surprise, and is so powerful and effective in individual sequences that one can — to an extent — overlook those story threads that remain unexplored.