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Josh Reviews Don Jon

Don Jon is written, directed by, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  It’s a great film and I love watching something that feels like a unique, singular voice (as opposed to the movie-by-committee sameness found in so much Hollywood product).  This has been a great season for debut films by actors who have taken it upon themselves to write and direct a film in which they would also star — just recently I was bowled over by Lake Bell’s film In a World… (click here for my review).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a buff, confident young Italian-American stud who is so successful with the ladies that his buddies have nicknamed him the Don.  Jon and his pals have a regular routine of looking for women out at nightclubs, and the Don has a streak of successfully scoring with girls the guys rate to be an 8 or higher.  One night, they spy a fabled “dime” — the gorgeous Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) — and while Jon is able to flirt successfully with her, to his surprise she doesn’t let him take her home.  Not one to give up, Jon asks around and is able to figure out her last name, contact her via facebook, and ask her out on a date.  She agrees and the date goes well, but even then, again to his surprise, she won’t let him sleep with her.  The two begin seeing one another regularly, and it looks like for the first time Jon has found a girl he loves, one he’s even willing to bring home to meet his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly).  Everything seems to be going great until Barbara discovers Jon watching porn, and realizes that he watches porn constantly.

There’s a scene about halfway through the film in which Barbara angrily confronts Jon about his porn watching, when he retorts to her that the porn he loves is no different than the Hollywood romantic films that she loves.  Both give the viewer an unrealistic, and perhaps unfair, set of expectations as to what love and relationships should ideally be.  Now, I don’t happen to agree with Jon’s perspective that porn and romantic comedies are the same thing, but the film has an interesting time exploring the ways in which there are similarities between the fantasies that both create.  Prior to their big argument, we have heard Jon lament, in voice-over earlier in the film, that even though he has a lot of sex — and always with absolutely beautiful girls — the sex is never as perfect as what he sees in his videos.  We have also seen Barbara walk out of a movie, on a date with Jon, awestruck by how beautiful the love story was that she just watched, and how amazing it was that the man sacrificed everything in the movie for the woman he loved.  As the film progresses, it seems that she has similar expectations for Jon in their relationship, something which Jon calls her on in their final scene at the end of the film.

This debate is an interesting hook to hang a film on, and indeed Don Jon gets a lot of mileage out of exploring these issues.  But while I would imagine the porn subject might keep many viewers away from this film, it’s a mistake to think that this porn debate is the only thing the film is about.  It’s not.  What makes Don Jon great, in my mind, is that it is a powerful character study of a young man who seems to have everything he needs to be happy — he’s great-looking, he has no trouble getting women, he has great friends — but who is nevertheless lost.  Jon’s addiction is porn, and that is what makes the film’s story so original and also eyebrow-raising, but had Jon’s addiction been drugs or booze or some other vice, the essential narrative through-line of the film would be the same.

(By the way, it would also be a mistake to think that Mr. Gordon-Levitt or any of the other film-makers involved in this project agree with Jon’s opinions about porn.  I obviously can’t speak for what’s going on inside anyone else’s head, but by the end of the film it’s clear that the purpose of Don Jon was NOT to say to people, “hey, there’s really nothing all that bad with watching porn all the time, it’s the same as the romantic movies you girls love.”)

I never watched Third Rock From the Sun, the TV show in which Mr. Gordon-Levitt starred when he was a kid, but I have enjoyed a lot of his work in film in the years since (films such as Brick, (500) Days of Summer, Inception, and Looper).  Not only have I been impressed by his acting abilities, but I also have great respect for his choices — he has taken on challenging roles in a diverse array of projects, small indies and big budget spectacles, action-adventures and romantic comedies and dramas.  This film marks a huge step forward for him.  First of all, he is terrific in the lead role.  He has physically transformed himself, buffing up from the skinny dude he was in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer to a pumped, imposing figure.  Beyond that physical transformation, though, Mr. Gordon-Levitt fully inhabits this character, a very different type than I have ever seen him play before.  Jon is an alpha dog, loud and brash and cocky.  But he’s not a jerk.  This is a very fine line that Mr. Gordon-Levitt skillfully walks, and we can see in his success walking that line that not only is he a great performer, but a talented screenwriter as well, because his sharp script plays all the right notes in shaping this character.

Even before we get to the porn obsession, we can see that Jon and his friends are crass and crude in the way they rate women on their looks, and the predatory way they go out every night just looking to “smash” (to have sex).  But somehow I still liked this guy.  I liked his rapport with his friends, I liked his devotion to his family, I liked the importance he placed on going to church (even if his weekly confessions were rather perfunctory), and I was impressed by the care he put into keeping his apartment clean, a surprisingly metro-sexual characteristic for this otherwise bulldog of a guy.  (In fact, I found that one of the most interesting moments in the film is the way my sympathies radically shifted from Barbara to Jon when she critiques him for cleaning his place by himself, rather than hiring a cleaning-woman.  Like Jon, up until then I was somewhat under Barbara’s spell, but that moment broke it for me.)  Getting back to my point, it’s important that we like Jon, because otherwise I think we would immediately reject him because of his obsession with porn, seeing it — like Barbara does — as immediately repulsive.  Again, to be clear, I am not saying that it is not repulsive.  Only that Mr. Gordon-Levitt is skillfully able to keep his audience connected to Jon, despite his love of porn.  The film would not work were that not the case.

Mr. Gordon-Levitt also impresses as a director.  Right from the opening credits (an amusing montage of familiar pop-culture imagery that features sexuality and women’s bodies), there is an endearing energy pulsing through the film.  Mr. Gordon-Levitt’s edit of the film is very playful and creative, making frequent use of montages and voice-over for very humorous effect.  (Gotta pay a lot of credit to editor Lauren Zuckerman for this as well, I am sure.)  The playfulness of the way the film’s trailer was edited is not a fluke — that trailer actually does a nice job at giving a hint of the film’s energy and style.  I particularly loved the various fast-edited montages of Jon’s success with women, something that is not only very funny and an economical way to cover a lot of ground, but also an effective way to show us through the very nature of the filmmaking involved how little those liaisons meant to Jon.

I have great admiration for the cast Mr. Gordon-Levitt has assembled for his debut film.  Scarlett Johansson is perfectly cast as the “dime,” Barbara Sugarman.  Ms. Johansson is gorgeous, of course, so we can see why Jon would be so immediately smitten with Barbara.  But I must say I was very impressed by Ms. Johansson’s performance.  I don’t think I have enjoyed her work as much since Vicky Christina Barcelona.  Her Brooklyn accent s a hoot, funny but on just the right side of being cartoonishly fake.  I love how completely Ms. Johansson inhabits this sassy, strong-willed Brooklyn girl.  She is vivacious and fierce and a ton of fun to watch.  She is ALIVE in this role in a way I haven’t seen her be on-screen in a long time.

I loved Jon’s two best boys, played by Rob Brown (yep, it’s sax-playing Delmond Lambreaux from Treme!!) and Jeremy Luke.  Like Jon himself, these two guys could have so easily been extremely off-putting because of the way they talk about women, but somehow I found them to be endearing, probably because of the genuine friendship they have with one another.  I was particularly impressed by the writing and acting in the scene, late in the film, in which a worried Bobby (Rob Brown) comes to visit Jon at his apartment. We’ve seen that sort of worried-best-friend scene in movies a lot, but Mr. Gordon-Levitt and Mr. Brown put a fresh spin on it, keeping the moment both funny and poignant, but above all real.

I also loved Jon’s family.  I haven’t seen Tony Danza do any acting in a long, long time, but he is fantastic as Jon’s father, Jon Sr.  This is a character with some rough edges and that is putting it mildly.  It’s the way he always watches football at the table.  The way he oogles Barbara when Jon bring her to meet his parents.  The way he asks Jon if his new girl is a Jew when he hears her last name is Sugarman.  But as with all the other characters in the film, Mr. Danza plays his role with an endearing twinkle in his eye, and he brings a lot of humor and warmth to Jon Sr.  His is the most cartoonish role in the film, but Mr. Danza plays everything just right, keeping the character grounded and keeping the audience on board.  Watching his work makes me sad that Mr. Danza isn’t doing a lot more high-profile work these days.  Glenne Headly is just as great as the Edith to Ton Danza’s Archie.  She is also a bit of a cartoon, but such a fun one I can’t complain.  And the moment when she finally calls Jon Sr. on his bullshit, saying “so help me…!” as he reaches for the TV remote, is so great.  I’ve also gotta praise Brie Larson, who, as Jon’s sister, only has one single line of dialogue in the film, but it is a doozy.  And she was already so great in the role, even before her one line finally arrives.  Great writing mixed with a great actor’s work.

The biggest surprise for me about Don Jon was Julianne Moore.  I didn’t even know she was in this movie, and she turns out to be one of my favorite things in it.  When her character, Esther, enters Jon’s life about halfway through the film, it seemed like a weird comic sidebar, but by the end of the film it is clear that Esther represents the hinge on which the film’s story turns.  I would not have foreseen the way she is able to affects Jon’s life.  Julianne Moore is always a great actor, but it’s been a while since I was this taken by one of her performances.  She is gloriously funny and weird and lovable and sad as Esther, and I was really blown away.  (Also, is it just me, or is she way more beautiful in this film than she has been in a long while on-screen?)

There is no question that the film’s focus on porn, and the rather frank nature of some of the sexual content of the film (though here really isn’t much nudity, there is a LOT of talk about sex and porn and everything that goes with them) will keep many people away from Don Jon.  I wouldn’t push anyone into seeing this film who thinks the content would make them uncomfortable.  But I quite enjoyed this film, which was not only funnier than I expected, but also a much deeper character study than I had expected.  This is terrific work by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a bold announcement of his skills as an actor and a filmmaker.  I look forward to seeing what he does next!

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