Don Jon: Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the kind of following that could, at some point, turn him into a real-deal movie star; he’s built up a resume of ambitious movies that also happen to be fairly popular, from the Nolan-helmed blockbusters Inception and The Dark Knight Rises to smaller genre successes like Looper, 500 Days of Summer, and 50/50. (Premium Rush should have fit into this category, but it was last summer’s most fun movie to get dumped into a late-August release.) But like a lot of young-ish actors who make a play for leading-man status, JGL feels like a character actor at heart—even when performing his frequent lead roles. He certainly has presence and charisma, and can carry a mainstream-y movie like 50 or 500 without much strain. Emphasis on “much,” because there is a tiny bit of visible strain in those two movies, even though Gordon-Levitt is good in them (and in the case of Summer, not at all what’s wrong with the movie itself).
When he settles into a sweater-wearing regular-guy role, there’s something a little overemphatic and self-conscious about him: in 50/50, he never settles down into actually bantering with Seth Rogen, and he seems happy to lean into the screenwriters’ worst, cutest ideas of what a regular hipster-ish guy is like in 500 Days of Summer. You could see that when he hosted Saturday Night Live, too: he looked so eager to appear as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Good Sport Doing Sketches, that it lent an air of theatrical pretense even when he was showing off strong energy and timing. Yet in many of his movies, Gordon-Levitt all but disappears. The teenagers he plays in Mysterious Skin and Brick could not look or sound much less alike, and he played them within a year of each other; he’s terrific in the townie noir The Lookout and channels Bruce Willis without turning into an impersonator in Looper; even in straight-arrow supporting parts for Nolan, he’s perfectly natural. Don Jon puts the actor back front-and-center: he serves as writer, director, and star. That he’s writing, directing, and starring in a romantic comedy of sorts sounds potentially hammy, and the trailer full of Joisey accents (including JGL’s own) and Italian-American stereotypes does nothing to dispel that notion. But curiously, the broad accent and tanktop-based outfits auger well for Gordon-Levitt’s talents as a chameleon. Frankly, even with the threat of condescension lingering in the air, I’d be a lot more worried if he chose to play this character as a cute version of “himself.” Don Jon could still prove to be bust—Gordon-Levitt may well have channeled all of his self-conscious into the screenwriting and directing—but its star would do well to keep on shapeshifting regardless.