Film Film Reviews

Film Review: Don Jon is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Admirably Flawed Directorial Debut

THE PLOT

A modern day Don Juan nicknamed Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who looks, speaks, and acts like he’s been lifted straight out of Jersey Shore courts the girl of his dreams (Scarlet Johansson).  Small problem: he’s addicted to online pornography, and she to Hollywood romantic comedies, both of which have negatively shaped their expectations for romantic relationships.

THE REVIEW

It’s only natural for a writer/director to try and do everything they’ve always wanted to do in film with their first movie, using ostentatious editing to show off a little bit and tackling weighty ideas that are just a bit beyond their abilities to pull off.   Why not, right?  It’s a total crapshoot as to whether or not you’ll ever get a second chance, unless you are a do-it-yourself’er with crazily inventive ways of securing independent financing.  Announce yourself as a filmmaker of great ambition with your first effort, and then a filmmaker with the fine-tuned skills to follow through with that on your next one.

That’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Don Jon, which marks the writing, directing, and producing debut for the long time actor (long live Tommy Solomon on 3rd Rock from the Sun!!!!).   With Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt has attempted to make a commentary on the corruptive influence of popular culture on the modern state of love and trust in romantic relationships.  Wow.  Really, Gordon-Levitt? There is enough there to form the syllabus for an entire college course. Bit off a bit more than you can chew, don’t you think?  Okay, golden boy.  Show us what you got.  Well, it turns out he has quite a bit of insight without the requisite ability to pull it all together just yet.

Don Jon Tease Kiss
Gordon-Levitt and Johansson in Don Jon, with Johansson playing an expert tease

The film opens with a rather confident voice-over on top of a brilliantly edited montage which succinctly introduces us to Jon as a man of rituals related to health, family, and sex.  He cleans his apartment obsessively, keeps up his muscle car, trolls clubs at night for one-night-stands, and attends church with his family every Sunday morning after which they have a family dinner.  All actions have been rendered meaningless by virtue of having become ritualized, not that Jon realizes that at first.  As displayed mostly through his insightful voice-over commentary, Gordon-Levitt’s Jon is a nice guy struggling to escape from his own swagger and need to satisfy prurient interests.  With so much voice-over throughout, Gordon-Levitt’s Jersey accent, as is true for the rest of the cast, is initially jarring before your ears quickly adjust to all of the drawn out vowels.

It takes but a couple of minutes into this montage for the topic of online pornography to be introduced, as Jon is seen bedding one romantic conquest after another before excusing himself to the next room to view pornography while his latest conquest slumbers.  Beyond the obvious social discomfort (many watch, few admit to it) of introducing pornography into the conversation, the challenge Gordon-Levitt posed to himself was how to actually visualize someone watching pornography.  Similar to depicting a character watching or reading something profound, it is an act so inherently insular it calls for a lot of facial expression “my mind is being blown and the audience gets that, right?” acting and voice-over to key the audience in on the character’s inner monologue.

Gordon-Levitt utilizes the voice-over but adds a fun and smart juxtaposition, in which we watch and hear as Jon explains all the differences between pornography and real sex as a way of explaining why he gets more enjoyment out of self-pleasure.  So, in one of the sequences which had to clearly be cut down to avoid an NC-17 rating (lots of female nudity, no full-frontal male, nothing explicit) we cut back and forth between one single honest-to-goodness porn scene starring somewhat famous porn star Sunny Lane (from tease to foreplay to sex to completion) and Jon in bed with his one-night stand.  We see how Sunny performs for the camera in comparison to how real women prefer to have sex.  Jon’s voice-over makes direct connections between those aspects of a porn scene which are guaranteed (set number of positions, certain lewd acts-like oral sex-which will be performed with alarming enthusiasm) versus how his real life sexual conquests will not moan as enthusiastically, clearly do not enjoy giving oral sex if they agree to do it at all, and prefer sexual positions which ensure eye contact and thus enhance intimacy.

donjon_trailer
The close-ups of Jon’s face during these sequences are particularly effective, as Gordon-Levitt nails the glassy-eyed stare of an addict

While it is obvious in wide-shots that just outside of our view Jon is masturbating to what he is watching, the emphasis is not on the self-pleasure but what it is Jon is missing from one-on-one connections that drives him to do it.  Jon’s viewing of pornography throughout the rest of the film is handled in a similar manner, with each sequence introduced by a close-up of the power-on button on his laptop and accompanying sound effect signaling a Pavlovian response for Jon.

However, Gordon-Levitt has maintained in interviews that the intention is for Don Jon to not be a film about pornography but instead about the corruptive influence of pop culture on expectations in romantic relationships, with Jon presented as a man who cannot truly connect to not just women but also life in general.  The sister argument is supposed to be presented in the form of Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), a “dime” (a 10 on a 10-point scale) who plays hard to get and delays sexual gratification with Jon (which makes him want her all the more).  The idea is that Sugarman is equally as corrupt as Jon, obsessed with romantic comedies.  Johansson also puts on a believable secret-addict facial expression during her close-up as her character is depicted viewing a romantic comedy (starring a very game Channing Tatum and Anne Hatheway) in a theater on a date with Jon.

Jon’s voice-over offers a rather astute observation as to the predictable formula of romantic comedies, with the audience left to make the connection between the previously explored formula porn scenes follow and standard story beats/twists romantic comedies do.  While Johansson is good in the role, this is arguably the area where Gordon-Levitt fails to some degree, not completely making clear in Sugarman’s actions how she has completely been corrupted by romantic comedies.  Her controlling nature and not-so-subtle efforts to make Jon a more suitable spouse by influencing him to attend night school to attain a college degree would not seem to be wholly unique to a woman who likes romantic comedies, as Gordon-Levitt does not make as direct a correlation between the two as he does with Jon and pornography.  The more effective argument appears to be about the notion of a need for control in romantic relationships ultimately serving to hinder intimacy.

DON JON
Poor Julianne Moore does the best with what little material Gordon-Levitt’s script gives her.

The other female characters in the film also receive mostly surface-level treatment, with the usually fantastic Glenne Headly as Jon’s mom little more than an ethnic stereotype of a mom who wants grandchildren, Brie Larson as Jon’s sister a mere texting-obsessed girl whose only lines in the entire film come near the end, and Julianne Moore as Jon’s night school classmate equating to what other reviewers are calling a Manic Pixie Dream MILF.  She serves no other function than to teach Jon a character-enriching lesson in the film’s more dramatic final third, which she does.

To be fair, it’s not like the other male characters are particularly well-rounded, with only Rob Brown as one of Jon’s best friends granted a scene outside of stereotype.  It’s cool seeing Tony Danza as Jon’s dad and everything, but he mostly curses at arena football games on TV during family dinner.  Plus, he upholds Jon’s views of women by objectifying Barbara when he meets her and being just as entranced as Jon by a ridiculously sexualized Carl’s Jr. TV commercial.  Indeed, it is admirable for a first-time filmmaker like Gordon-Levitt to resist the urge to make an overly obvious moralistic statement against the objectification of women, but instead depict in character’s actions how they have been negatively influenced by a Carl’s Jr. commerical or Sunny Lane porn scene.

This all amounts to a film that, for me, was far more interesting than actually entertaining.  It is not particularly funny, even when it’s supposed to be during its first half.  The decision to equate a Jersey Shore-type character to a modern Don Juan seems already antiquated, as the cultural moment for Jersey Shore has passed at this point.  Jon’s addiction to pornography as being a mere symptom of his inability to connect with life, friends, family, religion, and romantic partners is communicated effectively, with a surprisingly provocative statement thrown in about religion losing meaning through ritualization.  However, it is in the film’s final Julianne Moore-heavy final third in which Jon finally attempts to overcome his addiction that Gordon-Levitt’s amibitions outrace his current abilities as a writer and director.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Don Jon is an indie dramedy being sold as a riotous, edgy R-Rated comedy sure to please the masses, something it simply won’t actually be able to do due to its high sex content and uneven script.  However, this is a film of interesting ambition that announces Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a filmmaker to be excited about now that he’s gotten the inevitable flawed first film out of the way in his new career as a feature film writer-director.

  • The Good: Interesting and clever usage of juxtaposing kinetic editing; decent performances from Gordon-Levitt, Johansson, Moore
  • The Bad: Underdeveloped female characters; flawed last act; more insightful than funny

See It – Stream/Rent It – Skip It – Stream/Rent It

THE TRAILER 

Don Jon is Rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use.  It has a 90 minute running length.

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