Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)
Don Jon (2013): Written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Starring: Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, and Glenne Headly. Rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use. Running time: 90 minutes.
Couples beware: don’t expect a traditional romantic comedy here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, taking a break from his ubiquity as an actor, tries his hand at writer-director. His debut film contains more pornography than you might be used to seeing, and probably more subversive commentary than you might be used to hearing. It’s an entertaining debut that actually explores issues beyond the novelty of a Gordon-Levitt/Johansson romance.
Jon, called the “Don” for his exceptional skills at picking up the ladies, seems to have life figured out. No doubt he calls to mind the legendary figure of Don Juan, the notorious womanizer and adventurer. Gordon-Levitt’s Don is of humbler stock, but with his killer bod, boyish charm, and disarming innocence, he’s possessed of similar gifts. Oh—he’s also addicted to web pornography, actually preferring it to the countless women he’s had. It’s not that he doesn’t love the women, but well…pornography will always be on his terms.
He’s more than content with his hedonistic exploits until he meets Scarlett Johansson’s Barbara Sugarman. Johansson plays against type, to the point where we can see her as the character instead of the media bombshell she’s become. Jon is primed for a “long game,” as this woman wants more than a one-time deal. Soon, however, he’s entrenched in a relationship, an unexpected turn he nonetheless accepts. But how much of himself is he prepared to lose in the process?
Don Jon exists on a small scale, even as it deals with serious issues of addiction and emotional disconnect. With his nagging family and friends, he’s like the title character of Delbert Mann’s 1955 film Marty, except here the loner is proud and comfortable with his lifestyle. It’s a different role for Gordon-Levitt, who embraces the Jersey Shore-esque character with bravado and insecurity to spare.
The film certainly seems topical—according to Gordon-Levitt, we’re so addicted to ourselves, we’re losing any sense of human connection. Not a radical point, but a valid one nonetheless, and one that best convinces when spoken by talented performers. Jon meets Julianne Moore’s Esther, whose forward nature reveals a sensitive soul who changes Jon for the better. Moore, always dependable, cries a lot (as she often does), but it’s her patience and confidence that ensure we’re convinced of her wisdom.
Gordon-Levitt directs with flair—I see elements of Scorsese and Woody Allen in his style (the former with his marriage of film and sound editing; the latter with his naturalistic situational humor). But Gordon-Levitt is still finding his way—he’s too content to settle on verbal exposition as the film’s conscience. He lacks the deft touch that lets characters and situations imply rather than explain.
Further, his script lacks dynamic and realistic supporting characters—I wanted to see more depth and insight into his parents, played well enough by Glenne Headly and Tony Danza (who’s still working, apparently!). It’s not that I needed to see them redeemed (his father is a man’s man who has no time for his family, while his mother sees grandchildren as a validation for her existence), but perhaps something to transcend their sitcom stereotypes?
Still, Gordon-Levitt handles the subversive qualities of the film very well. He’ll follow the rom-com formula, then divert the plot elsewhere. It’s only then we realize how much we take for granted in these kinds of films—you find yourself wanting the course of the story to go one way simply because it’s predictable. Gordon-Levitt puts us in the mindset of his character—change is just as much a shock to Jon as it is to us. We realize how much Jon has taken for granted in his life, but his new-found knowledge becomes his salvation.
I wanted more from this film, from the world and the characters, but Gordon-Levitt has the visual creativity and smarts to help distract me from that. It’s a perfect anti-date movie.
–The CineMaverick, 10/2