July 2024

Don Jon (2013)

don-jon-fathers-day-clip-061613DIRECTOR: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luc


For his feature film directorial debut (though he had earlier dabbled in making short films through his online production company Hit Record), Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears three hats here as writer, director, and star, and has chosen to tackle such potentially dark issues as sex and porn addiction.  But in sharp contrast to something as bleak as the Steve McQueen-Michael Fassbender drama Shame, Gordon-Levitt goes the comedy-drama route.  There’s a little synergy with Gordon-Levitt’s 2011 cancer comedy-drama 50/50—though he only starred in that one, and did not write or direct—both in its raunchiness, and in the way it uses irreverent humor to tackle a difficult subject.  The result is a flawed directorial debut, but also shows enough promise to make a case that Gordon-Levitt’s talents do not only lie in front of the camera.

New Jersey bartender Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a one-night stand kind of guy, and so successful at it that his buddies (Rob Brown, Jeremy Luc) have dubbed him “Don Jon” (after the legendary lover Don Juan).  He and his friends hit the clubs and rate the ladies, and when Jon finds an “8” or a “9” he goes in for the kill.  But Jon has a deeper passion…pornography.  Such is his addiction that he slips out of bed with a girl he’s just had sex with to flip open his laptop and start masturbating to porn videos.  As much sex as Jon gets, porn satisfies him more.  Alone in front of a computer screen, not distracted by another person, Jon can “lose himself” in a way he can’t do with sex.  One night, Jon crosses paths with a blond bombshell Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), and sets his sights on her as his latest conquest, but something unusual happens; she’s unimpressed and rebuffs his advances…which, of course, only makes her a more desirable challenge.  We don’t spend the whole movie watching Jon chase Barbara.  The guy gets the girl with plenty of movie left, and is taken enough with her to try to break his endless cycle of meaningless hook-ups and porn and attempt an actual relationship, but it’s doomed from the start by issues on both their sides.  Barbara is shallow and selfish, and filled with unrealistic ideas about relationships from a fixation with romance movies.  She’s not really interested in Jon for who he is, but as a prop in her own romantic fantasy, and when he’s not the perfect idealized boyfriend, she gets angry.  For his part, he finds her less desirable the more time he spends with her, and slips back into his porn habit.  Meanwhile, Jon’s budding friendship with Esther (Julianne Moore), an older classmate at a local community college, might help him grow out of his unhealthy behavior.

There’s some social commentary here—Gordon-Levitt starts with the opening credits playing over a montage of objectified sexy women in various aspects of media, from commercials to professional wrestling to music videos and even weather reporters—but Don Jon’s breezy tone keeps it from ever feeling preachy or like Gordon-Levitt is sermonizing about sex and porn.  Just as 50/50 managed to portray an individual’s struggle with cancer without ever turning maudlin or overwrought, Don Jon makes its social commentary without being overbearing.  In fact, the movie makes the case that anything, no matter how banal, can become an unhealthy fixation.  In her own way, Barbara is as addicted to romance movies—and the unrealistic, towering expectations they’ve filled her head with—as Jon is to porn, and both impede their abilities to function in real relationships.  For that matter, Jon’s sister Monica (Brie Larson) is addicted to her phone, never setting it down even during family dinner or church.  This is thoroughly adult material; porn and sex are integral to the plot, and Gordon-Levitt doesn’t shy away from either of them.  Don Jon doesn’t get explicit, but it also doesn’t do any beating around the bush.  At the same time, those who seek out Don Jon hoping to be titillated are probably in for disappointment.  The porn isn’t lingered on, and the actors keep at least some of their clothes on.  There’s plenty of nudity in the porn videos Jon pores over—though most of it goes by in quick flashes—but none from the actors themselves.  In fact, Gordon-Levitt’s screenplay expressly comments on the contrast between porn and reality.  Jon complains that real sex—even with his “dream girl” Barbara—isn’t as good as porn, but Julianne Moore’s older, wiser Esther eventually points out that most porn bears little or no resemblance to reality, and the expectations it sets are, in different ways, as unrealistic as those Barbara gets from her romance movies.

Don Jon doesn’t follow a cliched narrative or a predictable trajectory.  It’s not a romantic comedy, at least not in a conventional sense.  Jon and Barbara’s relationship is unhealthy on both their parts and doomed from the start, and there’s no “it all works out in the end” 11th hour makeup and reunion.  Their relationship reaches its climax and implosion with about thirty-five minutes of movie left, which is spent on other subplots.  Things get a little more serious in the last half hour or so, with the revelation of the reason behind Esther being prone to sobs between classes and a sexual encounter with the lonely older woman that gives Jon something he’s never experienced before; an emotional connection with another person during sex.  The ending is maybe a little too neatly wrapped-up (and the final pairing maybe a trifle hard to swallow), but Don Jon avoids cliches of where we expect the story to go.

cdaa20cebcba111b9c82bfcbf86ff20a2836af60For his part in front of the camera, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has buffed up and adopted the appearance, accent, and attitude of a walking “New Joizey” Italian-American Guido stereotype who could have stepped straight off the cast of Jersey Shore, without making the character a complete cartoon (something Tony Danza and Glenne Headley, as his football-obsessed macho dad and mother hen aren’t quite as successful at).  Swaggering stud Jon is the polar opposite of someone like the lovelorn dork in 500 Days of Summer.  Scarlett Johansson turns on the sugary-sweet surface and some underlying bitchiness as a girl who knows how to wrap a man around her finger and expects to be treated like a princess.  Barbara is used to getting her own way, and doesn’t take it well when she doesn’t.  Julianne Moore provides some quirky humor and a needed voice of reason as Esther, Jon’s unlikely second love interest.  Barbara might be a lot hotter than Esther, but Esther gives Jon something he hasn’t had before…a real connection with another person.  The circumstances that bring Jon and Esther into their budding relationship are just believable enough for us to buy a young stud like Jon falling into bed with a significantly older, plain woman he wouldn’t ordinarily give a second (or first) glance.  Brie Larson, as Jon’s sister, spends 99% of her screentime on her phone, and then sets it down to say the most insightful couple of lines in the whole movie.  And while this may be Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, someone like him who’s grown up in Hollywood has connections, as evidenced by a couple of his friends, Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum, showing up for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in a chick flick movie Jon gets dragged to by Barbara.

Don Jon is flawed.  The heavy focus on pornography will be a turn-off to some viewers, even if, while Gordon-Levitt doesn’t shy away from it, he’s also not as gratuitous as he could have been.  His parents, played by Tony Danza and Glenne Headly, are caricaturish.  While the budding unconventional relationship between Jon and Esther has some nice moments, a romantic pairing of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Julianne Moore (twenty years his senior) is a little hard to swallow.  But Gordon-Levitt’s script uses witty humor to discuss serious issues, makes social commentary without ever sounding preachy, and has some insightful and well-written relationship moments between the characters.  It’s a promising start for Gordon-Levitt to show he’s as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it.

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