Don Jon (United States, 2013)

September 25, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Don Jon Poster

Don Jon is about addiction, obsession, and compulsion. It's about how the elements that drive and define our lives can impede normal, productive behavior. And, unlike a dark film like Shame, which deals with the same subject, it attacks its thesis with humor. Although Don Jon has a lot to say (and a lot more to suggest) about porn, it's primarily a character study about a man's struggle to overcome his addiction. In many ways, it's not that different from a movie about an alcoholic except, in this case, the compulsion to view porn doesn't overwhelm the protagonist's life; it merely impedes his ability to sustain a romantic relationship.

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a regular blue collar guy working in New Jersey's "service industry" (he's a bartender). He's a one night stand kind of guy, going out to clubs with his two buddies (Rob Brown, Jeremy Luc) and rating the ladies. When he sees an "8" or a "9," he moves in for the kill and, more often than not, ends up spending the night with her. But, to Jon, real sex isn't as good as masturbating to porn. He can't "lose himself" in the moment the way he can while watching porn clips on-line. Climaxing in front of a computer is a purely selfish act; he doesn't have to worry about working to please another person, and this satisfies Jon. Things change when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). To him, she's worth pursuing, and she knows enough about men to string him along, teasing and promising but delaying delivery. Nevertheless, when he finally has sex with her, it disappoints. The relationship that develops with Barbara is unhealthy in a number of ways (his porn addiction is matched by issues on her side) - a fact that he becomes aware of as a result of a non-sexual encounter with Esther (Julianne Moore), a classmate at a local community college.

Arguably the most fascinating aspect of Don Jon is the way it equates porn, and how it can warp the frequent viewer into developing fetishistic and shallow conceptions about women and sex, with other forms of entertainment. Gordon-Levitt specifically singles out an immersion in romantic comedies, which causes Barbara to develop unhealthy expectations from a relationship. For her, if a love affair doesn't conform to what she sees in the movies, there's something wrong with it. It eventually becomes evident that Barbara isn't interested in Jon as a person; she's interested in him as a prop in her own private romantic fantasy. When he doesn't conform, she becomes angry. For his part, he finds sex with her unfulfilling and so, after a period of porn abstinence, there comes a relapse.

Don Jon's narrative unfolds with a voiceover narrative provided by Jon that offers insight into his preference for porn and well as other pithy observations. Although the film contains frequent nudity, Gordon-Levitt is careful to confine it to the porn clips. When it comes to the actual actors, the level of skin is strictly PG-13. This is intentional in that it's intended to emphasize the objectification that often occurs in porn and contrast it with how things are in real life. There's really nothing titillating about the images Gordon-Levitt includes - they emphasize the unreality of porn, especially when presented in isolation.

After a crisis point, the movie struggles for about a half hour to wind down to its end. Another issue with Gordon-Levitt's script relates to the cartoonish relationship Jon has with his overbearing, football-obsessed father (Tony Danza) and his Edith Bunker-ish mother (Gleanne Headly). When compared to the similar family dynamic in Silver Linings Playbook, the artificiality of this one is apparent. The most interesting member of Jon's bloodline is his sister, Monica (Brie Larson), who has only two lines of dialogue in the entire film but spends her considerable amount of screen time plugged into social media and quietly observing.

Gordon-Levitt wears three hats (director, writer, actor) and all of them fit. Don Jon is visually interesting without being overbearing. The script finds a witty way to confront serious issues. And Gordon-Levitt takes on the personality of a guy straight out of Jersey Shore. This performance offers more evidence that Gordon-Levitt can play any role convincingly. In the past few years, he's been in a romantic comedy, a big budget superhero movie, an Oscar-contending historical epic, an affecting (but not maudlin) cancer drama, and sci-fi films about perception warping and time travel. There's a hint of Brando in the way he portrays Don, but not too much. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson shows a bitchy side that we haven't yet seen from her. That's intended as a compliment - this is a great example of acting, down to perfecting the accent and the body language.

Another interesting aspect of Don Jon is that it looks at porn from a consumer perspective rather than from the production side. It doesn't demonize the adult film industry, instead emphasizing that porn is like anything else - when it comes to dominate a person's life, it can be a problem. Gordon-Levitt's approach is balanced; this isn't a screed or a thinly-veiled sermon. It's a story he felt strongly about telling and the result shows another promising facet of one of the industry's most talented individuals.

Don Jon (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2013-09-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1