Over the past decade and change, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has evolved from a promising child star into one of the brightest talents of his generation. But while films like 50/50 and even Inception—the latter of which gifts him its best, funniest line—have highlighted his knack for comedy, the actor’s never less convincing than when playing aggressively dumb. In the broad comic sideshow Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt dims the flicker of intelligence behind his shifting eyes to star as a New Jersey mook whose taste for “perfect 10” club girls is eclipsed only by his addiction to Internet porn. Bulked up to Channing Tatum proportions, and speaking (often through voice-over) in an exaggerated “Joisey” accent, he is even more cartoonish here than he was in Hesher. To be fair, he’s not out of place: Like a sketch-comedy Jersey Shore parody stretched to feature length, Don Jon is populated almost exclusively with caricatures—a collection of Garden State buffoons that includes the hero’s stereotypically Italian parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly), his knucklehead wingmen, and his voluptuous sexpot girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson), whose contempt for her new beau’s compulsive masturbation habits drives the film’s plot.
Sadly, there’s really no one else to blame for this minor misfire than Gordon-Levitt himself, as Don Jon is none other than his feature debut as a writer and director. Behind the camera, he cultivates a style that’s probably best described as sub-Edgar Wright: Playing with fast-cut repetition, the filmmaker turns his character’s day-to-day into an endless loop of stifling routines: gym, traffic, sex, porn, the confession booth, and repeat. (In the most inspired running gag here, the sound of a laptop booting up becomes a Pavlovian cue.) This is a sound strategy for conveying the stranglehold addictive behavior can put on a life, though it also makes Don Jon feel a little one-note. On page and screen, Gordon-Levitt mostly fails to transform his bulky title protagonist into a multi-dimensional figure. He belongs in the final 15 minutes of an SNL episode, not at the center of a full-sized comedy.
To Gordon-Levitt’s credit, he neatly sidesteps the moralizing message his film seems to be building toward. The hero’s problem is not that he jerks off too much; as articulated by widowed, pot-smoking classmate Julianne Moore—the only real human being onscreen—it’s that he’s never actually connected to another person through sex. Don Jon’s saving grace is its Hail Mary sweetness, a rush of endearing last-act sentimentality that somewhat redeems the nonsense that comes before it. Here, in the backstretch, Gordon-Levitt finally affords his character a shred of dignity, even enlightenment, and that makes all the difference: Only when he’s able to create a sense of intellectual curiosity does the triple-threat star seem to get into the groove of the part. Why he felt the need to saddle himself, and his first feature, with such an otherwise devolved specimen of masculinity is anyone’s guess.