October 3, 2013
Don Jon is not, by any means, a safe film for first-time writer-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It speaks to an affliction that could easily be off-putting to a wide audience — pornography addiction. It features a muscle-bound materialist as its lead (played by JGL himself) whose misogynist tendencies make him easily unlikeable. Despite this, the movie coasts on its charm and the strength of its message about the objectification of both sexes, even if that message can feel like it is being stretched an inch too far.
If one is expecting the “warm ’n cuddly” nature of Gordon-Levitt’s (500) Days of Summer to influence his first outing as director, the opening of Don Jon quickly dispels this notion. The film is front-loaded with explicit imagery, beginning with a hyperactive montage of Jon Martello’s daily life that earns the movie’s R-rating. He quickly establishes the tenets he lives by, among which are his Catholic faith, the girls he takes home nightly and his internet porn. The film does not candy-coat its main subject, containing an amount of nudity that could easily shock unassuming filmgoers. Perhaps even more unsettling is Jon’s voiceover, which veers into crass interludes on real vs. virtual sex.
Jon is jilted out of his routine when he encounters Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) on one of his nights out at the club. She is the Holy Grail of Jon’s conquests, a “10” in his eyes. However, Sugarman proves a formidable opponent for Jon; she prefers to be courted the old-fashioned way. As Barbara, Johansson fully inhabits her character in a way she hasn’t in years (say what you will about Black Widow, but emotional depth was not among her special skills). She smacks gum and speaks in a broad New Jersey accent, bringing attitude to the role. Johansson’s character parallels Jon in that she has her own addiction to romantic comedies. In juxtaposing Jon and Barbara, Gordon-Levitt suggests that porn and feel-good movies are both potentially toxic for forming the perceptions their audiences bring to reality. While I would agree that anyone who has suffered through Katherine Heigl’s body of work after Knocked Up knows that Hollywood schmaltz-fests are detrimental to society, the analogy isn’t as developed as it could be.
With any other actor in the lead role, it would have been difficult to empathize with Jon. He, after all, is a sex-obsessed alpha male who thinks of women as mere objects. Therefore, the film relies more heavily on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s skills as an actor than as a director to make the audience care about the immature protagonist. He succeeds in finding the right balance of ignorance and naiveté that makes Jon a compelling character. Tony Danza and Glenne Headly as Jon’s parents are frequent sources of comic relief. Danza in particular slips easily into the role of Jon Martello, Sr., donning a wife-beater and a gold chain at the dinner table. He is unquestionably his son’s role model, taking every opportunity to leer at Johansson’s character. Brie Larson’s reaction shots as Jon’s sister are one of the film’s gems, as she remains mostly silent during family gatherings.
Gordon-Levitt tries to develop his own signature style of directing over the course of the film, which is admirable for a novice. His direction is focused on repetition of shots and fast-paced intercutting, which bombard the audience with images as quickly as Jon browses web pages. This rapid-fire editing reflects the impatience of the central character and the high-velocity media consumption of those growing up in the Information Age. The writing largely takes a back seat to the visuals, but the observations of Don Jon on everything from the habits of the modern man to the Jersey Shore culture of Jon and his boys are often funny as well as shrewd. The film is rife with New Jersey stereotypes, but in the end the effect is more loving than damning.
The introduction of Julianne Moore’s character signals a shift in the film. Once Johansson’s character, a larger-than-life figure, is off-screen, there is a marked loss of momentum. The film becomes gentler as Jon himself does, and therefore the rough edges are shaved away in the final minutes. There are some interesting ideas at the heart of Don Jon about satisfying your partner in a relationship (an idea which manifests itself both figuratively and literally). However, the film drags on after what was an explosive beginning. I’m not opposed to dwelling in the smaller moments, but what occurs in the film’s final act feels more like aimless wandering by Jon than propulsive movement toward catharsis. The repetition of Jon’s regimen also becomes tiring after the audience has been through the cycle several times before.
Don Jon doesn’t wrap up all its plot strings tidily, not daring to conform to the too-perfect Hollywood endings it criticizes. In fact, the ending feels confused as the film struggles to coalesce its themes. Don Jon makes it clear that it’s not just about sex but does not dig deep enough to make a memorable statement. Despite this, there is no denying Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s talent; his first feature is almost impossibly self-assured. It will take a few films to tell if he will become another Ben Affleck-style success story (remember that before he was cast as Batman, the actor-director’s third film Argo won Best Picture). However, with Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt is off to an impressive start.