- - Thursday, September 26, 2013

Who would have guessed that the movie this season with the most heart would be one centered on a ladies’ man with a serious pornography addiction?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a writer-director comes as a complete surprise. Somehow, the 32-year-old actor has made a wise-beyond-his-years exploration of men, women and the difficulties they face navigating relationships in our hypersexualized culture. Its point is serious — but it’s delivered with a heaping helping of naughty fun.

The title character got his nickname from his friends impressed with his ability to pick up the hottest girls in the club every weekend. Jon (Mr. Gordon-Levitt), Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke) stand with their drinks, rating the women around them, to whom they give names like “Sequins,” before picking the ones on which to make moves. In one of the movie’s many clever uses of repetition, we see Jon over a period of weeks do the same song and dance. Literally — it’s the same song, same dance, same kiss every time he hooks up with a new girl at the club. Every now and then, he faces one of these one-night stands again; she’s never very happy. “Come on, you’re a grown woman. Did you think I was going to call?” he says, with some roguish charm.

Jon isn’t a bad guy. The New Jersey boy has dinner with his family after attending Mass every Sunday, goes to confession, and even does his penance (though he says his Hail Marys and Our Fathers while lifting weights). He keeps his pad spotless, getting every last mark off the dishes he washes. Everything in Jon’s life is performed as a ritual. Until he meets Barbara.

Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) throws Jon’s carefully executed life off balance. For one thing, she refuses to go home with him the first night they meet at the bar — or for many dates thereafter. This succeeds in making Jon crazy about her, of course. (That and her impossibly stunning figure and impossibly large lips.) Soon Jon is uttering a word he’s never before used of a woman: “girlfriend.”

But though Barbara eventually succumbs, Jon still isn’t satisfied. She catches him on his computer in the middle of the night, watching pornography. Looking at the tearful reaction he’s provoked, Jon agrees never to watch porn again. And he even tries not to, for a while. As Esther (Julianne Moore), a night school classmate asks him, “You have a girlfriend. Why are you watching dirty movies?” But Jon doesn’t find actual sex as gratifying as the fake stuff, and he’s soon back to his a-few-times-a-day habit.

“Don Jon” contains clips of the graphic material in which Jon constantly indulges, and he and his buddies (who also shine here) use pretty raunchy language. But that just provides the comedy that makes the thoughtful theme of the film, when you finally get it, such an unanticipated pleasure.

There are a few small missteps here. We never see Jon at work, for example. Now and then, a handicam inexplicably takes over during a scene. And Mr. Gordon-Levitt has his character going to confession after he’s had Holy Communion at Mass, when it should be before.

But those are quibbles. With his very first feature, the young actor, once best known as the child star of television’s “3rd Rock from the Sun,” manifests an intelligence and a humanity we could use much more of in Hollywood. “Don Jon” proves, like the career of its maker, that men can indeed evolve.

★★★½

TITLE: “Don Jon”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

RATING: R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS