Don Jon is a bold first film by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – who also wrote and stars in it. Jon is a bartender who has a few basic things he likes – his body, his pad, his family, his church, his boys and his porn. He’s a player – so much so that his boys call him The Don. When he meets Barbara Sugarman, he may have met his match – but will she be a match for his porn? Which is better – fantasy or reality?
Don Jon opens a quick montage of familiar images – commercials, sports, model shoots and so forth – that give us the nearly subliminal message that the objectification of women is a perfectly acceptable thing. Then, Jon (Gordon-Levitt) provides a voiceover explanation as to why he prefers porn to the real thing: he gets lost in it. That never happens with real girls because his sexual exploits are purely physical. His explanation is accompanied by an equally quick montage of softcore images that, in this context, seem barely more exploitative than the more commercial images we’ve just seen.
When Jon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johannson) at a nightclub, he is immediately taken with her because she actually looks better than his porn star fantasies. Also, she won’t sleep with him on the first date – or the next several, for that matter. Before long, he is so in love that he doesn’t notice what’s really happening and so, when they finally do make love, he still doesn’t get lost in their being together.
On the other hand, he is finally able to bring home a girl to meet his family – father Jon Sr. (Tony Danza), mother Angela (Glenne Headly) and oblivious sister Monica (Brie Larson) who seems grafted to her smartphone. He even starts taking a night class to better himself (guess whose idea that is…).
He meets a lovely older woman, Esther (Julianne Moore), in that class. She will, we are sure, be the reason he and Barbara break up. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In what seems, initially, to be a running gag (and it is funny), we chart Jon’s progress as a human being through his weekly trip to the confessional – followed by his reciting his penance while working out. Slowly, the focus of the film begins to change. Esther becomes more important; Barbara recedes.
Gordon-Levitt’s first film has a few things to say, though he never gets preachy, beginning with the way we are desensitized to the exploitation of women through the bombardment of hyper-sexualized images that surround us daily. There’s so little difference between the carefully considered and edited flashes of softcore smut he uses at key moments and the commercial clips that open the film, that it never seems like a particularly huge leap from accepting one and accepting the other.
Jon’s inability to get lost in making love with a real woman – as opposed to his ability to get lost in porn – isn’t about whether porn is good or bad, so much, as it is about Jon being stuck in a particularly selfish, needy state in terms of personal development where no reality can live up to his fantasies. That self hides behind a façade that doesn’t begin to crack until Esther informs him that porn sex isn’t real in any true emotional sense – they’re all pretending. This is an observation that also applies to the sudsy romance movies that Barbara loves – suggesting that they are as much a kind of fantasy as the stuff Jon watches.
In an ironic twist that counterpoints Jon’s situation, Monica turns out to be the most observant person in the film, after Esther. This is brought home in one specific scene at the family dinner table and it’s a killer.
Gordon-Levitt directs Don Jon with an assurance that is impressive. Every frame seems considered, honed and buffed to the exact appropriate texture. He develops what could be almost be called an anti-romance over the film’s ninety minutes – and gets riveting performances from his cast.
Scarlett Johannson should get special notice for her take on Barbara. By the film’s end, she is revealed to be as ugly on the inside as she is lovely on the outside. It’s a bold journey that Johannson makes absolutely believable.
Brie Larson is also terrific as the seemingly oblivious Monica – whose moment of clarity is a total delight. Danza and Headley are perfect as the bickering parents of these two very different people.
Finally, Gordon-Levitt is exceptional as Jon. He makes the character’s growth as subtle and organic as possible. There’s never one moment when you’re not with him on his journey.
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Photos by Daniel McFadden/Courtesy of Relativity Media