Don Jon (2013)
I walked out of Don Jon content, but frustrated. Content because there was just so much about this movie that I loved -- the humor, the setting, the romance, and especially the characters, who form everything that makes this movie worth watching. On the other hand, as I left the theater, I felt that the way it ultimately wrapped up made the entire proceedings feel like one great big ball of nothing. I felt as though I had seen 90% of a great romantic comedy, possessed of only one flaw, but a glaring one -- a plot that seems to end at the second act with little resolved. However, as I sat down to write this review and actually think about the ending, the more I realized that the protagonists really had grown over the course of the film, and that it ended at just the right point for it to leave a lasting mark. What we have here is a very impressive film, and while it's clear that Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn't in the big leagues of great Hollywood filmmakers yet, his writing/directing debut is a lot better than is to be expected for a first-timer.
Gordon-Levitt plays "Don" Jon Martello, a Jersey guido who loves his body, his family, his friends, his car, his "game", and most importantly, his porn. To Don Jon, porn is better than real sex, as having sex with a woman comes with all sorts of complications (condoms, oral, the missionary position) while porn allows you to fulfill all manner of sexual fantasies, no strings attached. He's a meathead with no real understanding of love, so when he decides that he's fallen in love with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a knockout babe he saw at the bar, it should be clear that he has no clue what he's getting himself into. This film does an amazing job of setting up the viewer's rom-com expectations -- boy meets girl, they fall in love, they break up, they make up, they live happily ever after -- and throwing them against the wall halfway through, around the point where Jon's porn addiction causes Barbara to break up with him. (This isn't a spoiler, because it's in all the trailers.) The film even goes out and straight-up mocks these cliches in an early scene, indicating that it's not going to play by the worn-out rom-com playbook -- another bit that should've prepared me for where this film ultimately went.
Because about halfway through the film, we are introduced to Esther (Julianne Moore), a night school classmate of Jon's who proves herself to have a far greater understanding of passion and romance than he -- or for that matter, Barbara -- does. She's out looking for love, not sex, and she teaches Jon just how the former can elevate the latter to something far beyond what cheap porn can provide. One could argue that Jon and Esther's interaction is a commentary of sorts on getting laid versus making love, and that our pop culture, with its current fascination with sexuality (who better to represent such than a Jersey Shore caricature like Jon?), is seriously missing the point and, ironically, missing a lot of great sex as a result. The love scene between Jon and Esther is, by miles, far more passionate than the causal lays he has with Barbara, the various women he meets at the club, and especially his hand and his laptop.
The characters here are what brings this all too life. As Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt nails the guido personality that we've all seen on reality TV, an impressive feat given that he's not remotely Italian. At times, I felt as though I was watching My New Haircut: The Movie, Gordon-Levitt's performance was so spot-on. His performance was a tough act to follow, yet Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore manage to keep up with him beat-for-beat. Johansson dripped with sexuality, allowing me to thoroughly buy her as the "dime" (the ten-out-of-ten "perfect woman") that Jon gushed over for much of the film, yet as her rougher side came out her performance also helped convey just why she wasn't the right woman for Jon. Moore, meanwhile, brought a different, more mature sort of sexiness to the table as the older woman who, in the course of her relationship with Jon, helps him grow up while also developing as a character herself. It would've been easy for Moore to fall into the "manic pixie dream girl" cliche of so many indie rom-coms, yet between the writing and her performance, she manages to overcome it. Even the smaller roles, like Tony Danza as Jon's boisterous dad and Brie Larson as his cell phone-addicted sister who only gets one line (though it is a big one), steal the show.
Perhaps the only major issue I had with the film is with how it treats Jon's porn addiction. For much of the second half, the film waffles on whether or not Jon has a real problem. In some parts, we get Esther lecturing Jon on why he needs to give it up, and a scene where he literally uses the "I can stop any time I want to" line. On the other hand, we get Jon being told that Barbara dumped him because she wanted a boyfriend that she could control, and that he's better off without her. I disagree, as Barbara, despite whatever faults she may have possessed, had a very good point when she broke up with Jon and told him off. While she was a fairly controlling woman, the way it is presented makes it appear as though the porn was what caused the two of them to break up. It should've been made clearer, beyond just a line at the end, that this was not the case.
Score: 4 out of 5
Muddled treatment of its subject matter aside, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's debut as a writer and director shows a ton of promise for his future career. If this is what he's like as an unpolished, first-time filmmaker, then he may well be the next Ron Howard or Rob Reiner.