Directed by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Written by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore and Tony Danza
For the first half of Don Jon I was prepared to write it off as a gross, occasionally charming debut feature, but the destabilizing element introduced in the second half (Julianne Moore) throws the movie completely off the beaten path in the best possible way. Before Moore’s character Esther enters the picture it came dangerously close to reveling in the kind of misogyny that it attempts to send up.
At first, there is just Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and, as he says, his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls and his porn. The flashy montages of gyrating asses and blowjob lips quickly show which of those takes precedence in his life. And, like the main character of (500) Days of Summer’s misreading of The Graduate, he is woefully misguided about the reality of the situation (he thinks it’s real).
Because Gordon-Levitt is also both writer and director of Don Jon, it was difficult not to see it as a reverse on (500) Days of Summer, an attempt to show something more. Instead of being a one-sided chronicle of how one “bitch” lays waste to a sensitive man’s heart, it is about meeting in the middle. To call it refreshing is to expose just how stupid most romance movies are, whether or not they carry the stupid moniker “chick flick.”
Jon and his new girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) aren’t characters as much as they are Hollywood stars having fun with New Jersey accents. And yet, the porn is always in the periphery, adding a level of discomfort that somewhat alleviates that shallowness. As director, Gordon-Levitt shows quite a knack for economical storytelling. He shows Jon’s life as a flurry of routine, with repeated shot patterns as he walks through the gym and into church and as he slouches his way through family dinner. (If it was hard to believe Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis were the same person in Looper, it’s even harder to see Tony Danza as his dad).
The camera also lies in wait by his computer, cutting to the trash can as cum-stained tissue after cum-stained tissue piles up. It gets in the way of his seemingly made in the stars relationship with Barbara, though that was clear from the trailers and the third act of nearly every other romantic comedy. Barbara reveals herself to be the kind of controlling, castrating cliche that finds its way into so many sitcoms and stand-up routines. Gordon-Levitt and Johansson play both of their personae as larger-than-life, though Jon is given much more screen time to sympathize with.
Don Jon takes a somewhat sharp right turn right at the point where most movies would have him giving up his vice and going to Barbara’s doorstep. (You should probably stop reading here if you haven’t seen the movie). Esther, an odd, melancholy woman from a night class he’s taking, sees him for who he is. She’s not “a dime” like he says Barbara is, but she has a lot of wisdom (and pot) to bestow upon him. She sees him watching porn in class, and she brings him one she thinks he’ll like while also picking up on the vulnerable undercurrent that motivates all the sticky tissues.
Moore brings a crucial sense of calm to the thundering Jersey-ness of the rest of the characters. More importantly, she has a life and a story outside of her relationship to Jon. In fact Jon’s time with her is much too rushed to truly flesh that out; if the movie had another 10 or 15 minutes of them instead of a sunny montage and monologue at the end, it may have briefly touched greatness. It doesn’t quite get there, but it does announce Gordon-Levitt as an actor-director crossover with quite a bit of potential.