So, you’re a lady killer with abs that can challenge the Situation’s (not to mention a bit of his Jersey gym rat accent too). Why live the life of a chronic masturbator when you can have any babe in the room? That’s a good question, and the rub of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s plucky rom-com Don Jon, in which he not only tackles the role of the titular buff Jersey boy but also makes his feature debut as both writer and director.

The film’s intrepid protagonist is called Don Jon — a play on his first name, Jon, coupled with that of the notorious lover Don Juan — by his boys because he always scores, although in private his ideal sex partner is 10 minutes of internet porn and a tissue. Even after landing a nine (on scale of 10), it’s not unusual for Jon to slip out of bed as his conquest du jour snoozes and fire up the laptop for a quick porno-boosted topping off.

Is he a sex addict? A porn addict? Don Jon is not so concerned with that as it is with Jon’s journey from meandering man-boy into manhood. That transition is jumpstarted one night while Jon is prowling the clubs and lays eyes on the comely Barbara (Scarlett Johansson giving her best and sexiest performance to date). She’s an arguable 11 (there’s that scale again) who’s interested in Jon, but she won’t let him bed her without a proper and long courtship, and she knows how to keep him on the hook without letting him in for a post-partying drink. Barbara’s also a life planner and isn’t so thrilled by Jon’s dead-end job in an electronics store or his lack of education. To get in the game, Jon’s got to sign up for night classes and take Barbara to meet his parents, both of which ultimately prove fateful.

Much of the film carries the tang of stereotype and cliché (think Jersey Shore), but as Don Jon washes over you, you realize there’s much more going on than a couple of greasers looking for hit-and-runs. It’s about letting go, finding yourself, and connecting with other people.

Whether through skill or beginner’s luck, Gordon-Levitt has infused a sly, subversive charm into the script. Barbara’s gum-smacking challenges and demands piquantly put Jon on edge and as director, writer, and actor, Gordon-Levitt isn’t afraid to deprecate himself or let the other players take center stage. In fact, Jon’s character is outshone by nearly every other character in the film. Barbara’s a strong cup of tea with her blunt bimbo-esque garble and clingy sweater dresses. Then there’s the overly tanned and toned Tony Danza and Glenne Headly who serve up devilish fun and plenty of puns as Jon’s working-class parents, while Julianne Moore adds a soft, human touch as a troubled older woman in one of Jon’s night classes. Their relationship develops in surprising and affecting ways, softening the brash braggadocio’s reluctant heart.

And even as Gordon-Levitt builds the film with emotional layers that take root with earnestness, there’s a jab of good humor in nearly every scene — even if it’s just a quick cutaway to Jon’s mounting mass of wadded-up tissue balls in the wire mesh trash can next to the laptop. The comedy also gets a boost from Jeremy Luke and Rob Brown, who serve both as Jon’s posse and Greek chorus. Brie Larson adds tartness as Jon’s adolescent sister. She’s a constant reminder of teen angst as she sits at the dinner table, tacit and unengaged even during bursts of raised-voice hysteria, which is commonplace at Jon’s parents’ house.

With its sweet quirkiness, Don Jon plays out like a Woody Allen comedy from the other side of the tracks, with sharp sophomoric wit stepping in for highbrow satire. It’s an impressive debut for Gordon-Levitt behind the camera — even if the film’s unresolved ending leaves you wanting.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.