Film Review – Don Jon
One of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s biggest strengths is his ability to choose diverse and interesting projects. Regardless of the success of each, he rarely does the same thing two times in a row. It makes sense, then, for his writing and directing debut to center around a character addicted to Internet porn. Don Jon tells the story of a New Jersey guy who has dedicated his life to the things most important to him: his body, apartment, car, family, religion, friends, and, of course, pornography. A product of the media’s hyper-sexualized culture, Jon (Gordon-Levitt) has fallen in love with the imagery of sex instead of sex itself, so much so that after he is done having intercourse with a woman, he still needs to watch porn to feel satisfied. Some people have problems with drugs and alcohol—Jon has too much fun in front of his computer screen.
For his first time behind the camera, Gordon-Levitt shows adept handling of tone and pace. He keeps the energy flowing from beginning to end, and is confident enough to throw in some unique editorial flashes. His camera placements and willingness to repeat visual/musical cues to show character development reflect the thought put into the material. The dialogue is funny and surprisingly insightful at times, and never was I bothered by his abundant use of narration. On the acting side, he is as good as ever. It’s clear he based his character on Italian-American stereotypes, most notably Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino from MTV’s Jersey Shore. But that makes the theme all the more prevalent. Yes, Jon objectifies the women he meets, but Gordon-Levitt is smarter than to leave it at that. By introducing us to a stereotype and then making him a fully realized person, he deconstructs the idea of imagery and how the public is force-fed those misrepresentations.
Jon is a myriad of contradictions. He attends church regularly, but only to confess his “sins of the week.” He visits his family, but most of the time is fighting with his father (Tony Danza), listening to his mother (Glenne Headly) complain about not having any grandkids, or being ignored by his sister (Brie Larson). Discipline is a huge factor in his life; he keeps his home and car spotless, and his workout regimen is planned to every minute detail. So why, then, would he let road rage overcome him, to the point of jumping out of his car and punching out the window of another person’s vehicle?
Throughout his entire life, Jon was taught a certain perspective of the world: what it means to be a good person, how to treat women, and how to be “a man.” Obviously, that perspective is a bit skewed, leaving him in a whole mess of confusion. All of this gets represented in the form of Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a girl he meets and immediately falls head over heels for. She is everything he desires in a woman—a “perfect 10,” as he would say. Scarlett Johansson delivers a solid performance, bringing dimension to her character. Barbara is not just an idealized thing for Jon to chase; she is just as flawed as everyone else, and we get to see those imperfections come to the surface once they start dating. Jon and Barbara have strong chemistry with each other, but does that stop Jon from watching porn? No. There is something he gets from porn he could not get even with a “perfect 10.” Although he says repeatedly he can stop watching it if he wanted to, the act of doing so proves harder than he imagined.
Of the supporting cast, Brie Larson makes a notable impact playing Jon’s near-silent sister, Monica. Monica is more absorbed in her phone than what’s happening around her, and Larson’s numerous expressions of disgust brought a number of laughs. When she does say something, she makes sure it’s worth saying. Julianne Moore also provides good work as Esther, a person who becomes something of a confidant to Jon about his predicament. Esther has seen it all and has experienced much pain in her life, and tries her best to provide some advice to Jon before it’s too late for him.
For everything that works for the film, and for how assured Gordon-Levitt is with his approach, the final act prevents it from really hitting its potential. It seems the narrative cuts out prematurely (pardon the pun) without ever reaching an emotional climax. I couldn’t quite believe where Jon ends up, and his multiple relationships aren’t wrapped up in a very fulfilling manner. It’s as though Gordon-Levitt wasn’t quite sure how he wanted everything to resolve, and as a result left something a bit contrived and safe, especially for a subject such as this. But for Don Jon being his first film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows promising ability as a filmmaker. He demonstrates strong control and interest in topics not often explored in the mainstream, and for that he should be congratulated. If this is his starting point, I’m excited to see where he goes next.