Don Jon begins with a narration from its writer, director and star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt, who plays Jon Martello, tells the audience how he pleasures himself. He’s seated at a desk. The room is dark except for the light from his computer screen, which shines on his buff, manicured chest (does he wax or shave?). His hair is cropped close on the side and slicked back on top. Slippery and swollen, he looks like a cross between Vince Vaughn in Swingers and Mark Wahlberg in, well, anything. Jon says he likes to take his time. He can spend hours on his computer searching for the right video to do the trick. When he finds it he escapes reality. He says it’s better than sex.

But make no mistake, Jon is not just some loner playing Yahtzee in his apartment. His friends call him “the Don” for his ability to routinely pick up attractive women. And who could resist? At the clubs, he walks in flaunting his muscles in cut-off shirt, he spots his target, raises an eyebrow and, in less time than it takes to hit “enter” on your keyboard, he’s ushered her into a cab. But all pornography and no love has made sex a dull task. The girls he takes home, while gorgeous, don’t fulfill his fantasies. And after he sleeps with them, he can’t help but slink out from under their arms and into his living room, where he finishes the job himself.

Jon and his friends rate women on a scale of attractiveness from 1-10. When one of Jon’s friends spots a woman that he fancies, Jon shoots him down saying, “She’s an ‘8’ in the face,’ but a ‘4’ in the boobs.” Jon cares about the rating because he’s got a streak going, having never taken home anything less than an “8.” The streak appears to remain intact when, early in the movie, Jon spots at the bar a “dime,” or a “10,” in a red dress ordering a drink at the bar. Enter Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and her glossed lips, voluptuous hips, bleached hair and eyelashes threatening to tickle her eyebrows. At first glance, Jon and Barbara appear to be the perfect match. But while Barbara may be a “dime,” she won’t let Jon cash in too soon. She wants to meet his friends. She wants to meet his family. She wants him to take a night class. And she wants him to stop watching porn. Jon acquiesces to all of her requests, but he can’t say no to the smut. He doesn’t see how it’s any different than the romantic comedies that women watch. The meet-cute, fairytale wedding and total sacrifice that men make in those movies is just as outlandish as the bizarre contortions and permutations of sex that he watches on his computer.

It’s a tricky parallel to develop, especially considering the romantic relationship at the center of the film. But the movie manages to flirt with the fine line of rom-com cliché without crossing it, and what unfolds is a smart and insightful commentary on the expectations men and women have for one another.

The word that keeps being tossed around to describe Don Jon is “confident,” Confident in its tone, its message and its actors, Don Jon narrowly avoids being the romantic comedy its main character so despises precisely because it never feels tempted to go in that direction in the first place. The script, which is tight, remains focused on one man, and neither preaches nor condemns how we behave, but rather considers why, and wonders what it’s like to see matters from the other side.

Gordon-Levitt did himself a favor by placing his passion project in the hands of veteran talent like Tony Danza and Julianne Moore, who challenge Gordon-Levitt in every scene. Moore, who plays Jon’s night school classmate Esther, carries the second half of the film, giving it the heart and reality check it teases at from the beginning.

Where Don Jon goes is far more important than where it starts, but it’s worth returning to the opening narration. This technique was also used in Looper, which was released last year. In both instances the opening narration sets a swift, smart tone for the rest of the film. And while it’s an odd comparison to draw, considering the movies share very little in common—Looper is a violent science-fiction action movie, Don Jon a romantic comedy/social commentary hybrid— they both star Gordon-Levitt in lead. I think I’m beginning to notice a trend.

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