'Don Jon' weaves porn and comedy with unexpected charm
05:00 AM, Sep 27, 2013
Don Jon is all about exploring fantasies.
Whether obsessed with Internet porn or sappy romantic comedies, key characters in the film (*** 1/2 out of four; rated R; opens Friday nationwide) are not keen on facing reality.
Writer/director/star Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes an intriguing subject human attraction and nimbly probes it with wit, insight and a disarming forthrightness. He also plays against type. As the swaggering Jon Martello, a slick-haired, Jersey Don Juan, he’s all about objects his beloved muscle car, his sterile bachelor pad and the always-willing, pneumatic women he lusts after in hardcore porn.
The film opens with a graphic barrage of bodies, in various states of undress, edited in quick succession. Cut to a shirtless, muscle-bound Jon. Though the camera shows only his face and chest, the sight of the actor known for his likable portrayals sitting in front of a laptop doing what people do when they watch such content, has some shock value. For his directorial debut, Gordon-Levitt is willing to take a risk.
The film could have come off as a frankly smutty exercise. The images on Jon’s laptop are explicit, often degrading. But the lurid visuals serve a larger goal. So does the broad ethnic humor. Don Jon is a feminist-leaning comedy about the pitfalls of objectification and the way media images influence and distort expectations for real-life relationships.
Gordon-Levitt, who has been acting since the age of 6, has made a satirical, assured, darkly comedic and even poignant film that has a fair amount to say.
A strutting Guido, Jon is part Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever, part Tony Soprano, and a jot of Jersey Shore’sThe Situation. When his eyes aren’t glued to the porn on his laptop and smartphone, he’s focused on his workouts, his boys and his confession booth listing of transgressions (which elicit funny autopilot penances). Sometimes his interests merge: He mutters Hail Marys while he pumps iron.
When he meets his perfect 10, Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), he repeatedly refers to her, in a de-humanized way, as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Johansson gives one of her best performances as the bossy, gum-chewing Jersey girl determined to change Jon into her image of a romantic hero. Tony Danza and Glenne Headly are hilarious as Jon’s parents. Gordon-Levitt proves he can act, write and direct with equal dexterity.
Jon easily rationalizes away his porn habit: “It’s not that I can’t stop,” he says. “I just figure, ‘Why should I?’ ”
Barbara’s just as hooked on escapist fairy-tale romances. But there’s no 12-step program for that.
Jon slowly changes from a self-centered, superficial jerk to a decent, thoughtful guy, as a friendship develops with Esther (Julianne Moore), a fellow student in his night class. While Moore lends dramatic heft, the character’s motivations can be murky.
This unconventional, engaging and lively character study was originally called Don Jon’s Addiction when it made its debut at Sundance earlier this year. It was a more apt title. The characters’ immature addiction to make-believe is exactly the point.