Don Jon

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Screenplay: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jon), Scarlett Johansson (Barbara), Julianne Moore (Esther), Tony Danza (Jon Sr.), Glenne Headly (Angela), Brie Larson (Monica), Rob Brown (Bobby), Jeremy Luke (Danny), Paul Ben-Victor (Priest), Italia Ricci (Gina), Lindsey Broad (Lauren), Amanda Perez (Lisa), Sarah Dumont (Sequins), Sloane Avery (Patricia)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2013
Country: U.S.
Don Jon
Don JonJoseph Gordon-Levitt, the now-grown child actor of the ’90s who has spent the past decade spreading his time equally (and wisely) between cult-beloved indies (Mysterious Skin, Brick, (500) Days of Summer) and big-budget blockbusters (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), has now joined the ranks of in-front-of and behind-the-camera hyphenates, writing, directing, and starring in Don Jon, a startlingly frank romantic dramedy about porn addiction. Outside of making a feature-length Stan Brakhage-esque montage film of leaves and grass glued to celluloid (or making an actual pornographic film), it’s about as daring a filmmaking debut as one could imagine coming from an already established Hollywood actor, although Gordon-Levitt wisely leavens the provocative subject matter with ample doses of humor and revved up visual aesthetics, which helps distinguish it from the depiction of sexual addiction in Steve McQueen’s dour art-house drama Shame (2011).

The title character, one Jon Martello, is a twentysomething Italian-Catholic New Jerseyite who pays the bills working as a bartender (“the service industry,” as he likes to refer to it) but whose real passion is sex. The problem is that, for Jon, sex with another human being pales in comparison to the masturbatory sex he has in front of his computer screen. In his voice-over narration, Jon unabashedly lays out his laundry list of reasons for preferring pixels to people, extoling the virtues of unattainable sexual bliss from unreal actors who create fantasy worlds whose primary pleasure is that they require nothing of him. Unlike when he has sex with actual women (which he does regularly), watching pornography allows him to “lose himself,” sink into a world in which he can focus entirely on his own self-gratification without any of the bother of another person’s desire. His selfish approach to sex is neatly encapsulated in his absolute dismissal of the missionary position because it doesn’t allow him to fetishize and objectify his sexual partner the way his beloved videos do.

In just about every sense, Jon is a genuine loathario of the Jersey Shore variety, and were it not for the subtle details of Gordon-Levitt’s nuanced performance, he could easily slide into slicked-hair, wife-beater-wearing, anger-management-needing caricature. Sporting a heavy Joy-see accent and a cocky smirk that sometimes makes him look like a young Robert De Niro, Gordon-Levitt ensures that we find Jon morally repulsive, but also deeply fascinating. What, we ask, really makes this misogynistic cad tick? We get some of the answer in the scenes that takes place at his parents’ house, where his father, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza), holds court with demanding paternalistic authority, barking orders and cursing angrily while refusing to pry his eyes from the Sunday afternoon football game while his wife (Glenne Headly) alternately cowers and chatters and his teenage daughter (Italia Ricci) simply tunes out while texting on her mobile phone. We get some of the answer in his interactions with his two best friends, Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke), who act as each other’s wingmen at the local club while debating viciously about what number to assign all of the women (the top score being “a dime”), a comical process that nonetheless reflects their fundamental inability to recognize humanity in anyone of the opposite sex.

One such “dime” is Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a gum-snapping blonde bombshell who Jon immediately hones in on and becomes obsessed with bedding. Instead, he finds that Barbara is even more in control than he is, keeping him at bay and denying him his carnal desires until he goes through her hoops (meeting the parents, meeting the friends, etc.). It turns out that Barbara is a media junky as well, but instead of getting lost in the impossible fantasies of internet pornography, she is smitten with the make-believe romance of Hollywood rom-coms, which have embedded in her the idea that a man can only demonstrate his love for her by doing exactly what she wants exactly when she wants it. Just like Jon’s masturbation, her idea of romance is decidedly one-sided and selfish.

While Don Jon nails the essence of misguided romance in the age of nonstop media saturation, the film hits several narrative snags that threaten to derail it. The first snag is the character of Esther (Julianne Moore), an eccentric woman nearly twice Jon’s age who he meets at a night class that Barbara insists he take in order to improve his financial future. Either mentally unstable, deeply sad, or both, Esther comes across too much like a movie creation, that wacky marginal character who keeps showing up until she finally delivers on her narrative mandate to provide for the protagonist an important life lesson. Moore is effectively charming in the role and also quite affecting once she reveals the source of her clearly neurotic behavior, but the character fails at the conceptual level, which weighs down the film’s final third.

Similarly, Gordon-Levitt misses some potential social commentary in favor of fly-by observation, particularly his character’s devotion to the rituals of his Catholic faith without seeming to have any real faith at all. Much of Don Jon is structured around snappy visual and narrative repetition—Jon making eye contact with, grinding against, and then riding off in a cab with his latest club conquest; striding into the gym for his workout; yelling angrily at other drivers before running late into church; flipping open his computer for some one-on-one time—which also includes his weekly confession, the film’s most direct confrontation of the meaningless effect of Jon’s religious rituals on his personal life. Yet, Gordon-Levitt doesn’t do much more with it, which makes the church and confessional scenes feel like broadside Catholic caricature rather than thoughtful critique. It’s like he took the sex and Catholic guilt tropes that fueled Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1968) and discarded the guilt.

Even with those flaws, though, Don Jon is a fascinating and often compelling film, and a clear sign that Gordon-Levitt is a filmmaker of note whose future is bright if he continues to not play it safe. His willingness to potentially sacrifice the good will he’s created as a popular actor by diving into troubled thematic waters and swimming against the current is certainly admirable, and one can only hope that he continues to move against the grain, turning conventional Hollywood genre tropes inside out.

Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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