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Rising to the occasion with a surprisingly light touch

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson.

DANIEL MCFADDEN/RELATIVITY MEDIA Enlarge Image

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson.

THE unprecedented availability of porn in contemporary life is a phenomenon that is never really seriously addressed in pop culture, save for a few naughty gags in teen comedies and late-night talk shows.

It is thus doubly impressive that in his writing-directing debut, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt meets the topic head-on, as it were.

Gordon-Levitt himself plays Jon, a piece of Jersey beefcake who, to outward appearances, enjoys a life of satisfying routine inventoried thus: "My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn."

The guy is well-meaning and generally benign, but not exactly intellectually adventurous when it comes to stuff beyond that narrowly defined lifestyle. As far as women are concerned, he doesn't see any reason not to rate any possible bedmates on the one-to-10 scale.

But his world gets turned around upon meeting Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) -- a solid 10, or as his buddies phrase it, "a dime."

You may be lulled into guessing, according to rom-com formula, that this is the woman who will force Jon to grow up, reject that pesky porn habit and gain entrance into the real world of erotic fulfilment.

Guess again. As a matter of fact, in the courtship sequence, Gordon-Levitt suggests that the movie rom-com is as insidious a distraction for women as porn is for men, allowing its viewers to lose themselves in an unrealistic fantasy. (Good luck getting work in a rom-com from now on, Mr. Gordon-Levitt.)

In any case, Jon can't leave the porn behind, even immediately after successfully bedding the seemingly perfect Ms. Sugarman. When she catches him in the onanistic act, post-coitus, she makes him promise to stop.

Under the duress of breaking the porn habit, our hero is forced to re-evaluate his other assumptions, including his church -- which always hands out the same penance, regardless of his confessed sins -- and his family.

Jon's hot-tempered dad, while comically portrayed by Tony Danza, demonstrates that the sexist acorn doesn't fall far from the sexist tree. It's difficult to say which is more creepy: Dad's ogling of the hottie Barbara when she comes to dinner, or Jon's apparent happiness at his dad's sweaty approval.

There is a woman who can help in this reconsideration, but she is well outside Jon's comfort zone. Esther (Julianne Moore) is a classmate at Jon's night school who notices his penchant for discreetly watching porn on his smartphone and helpfully gifts him with an erotic DVD of a movie that once turned her on, you know, back in the day.

Gordon-Levitt is a more assured actor than he is a director. While well-performed and tightly written, the film registers as being a little rough around the edges, especially after Jon suffers a kind of breakdown and indulges in a lost-weekend porn binge. Up to that point, Gordon-Levitt the director had eschewed any heavy-handed stylistic flourishes, so when they come, it feels awkward and untrue to the material.

Fortunately, that does not detract from the overall effectiveness of this movie, with its caustic comedy and its uniformly fine performances, especially by Johansson as a dream girl with more than a hint of nightmare.

Mostly, one is impressed by Gordon-Levitt's gutsy willingness to address this theme in a smart, insightful way.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 27, 2013 D3

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Updated on Friday, September 27, 2013 at 8:53 AM CDT: adds video

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