While my usual filmgoing trio — that’s Edwin Arnaudin, my wife and me — were waiting for Don Jon to start, a group of women came in and sat in the row in front of us. One of them turned and asked me, “Is this going to be any good?” Well, since I hadn’t seen it, I couldn’t say, but it turned out that they’d picked Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s writing and directing debut based on nothing but the names of its stars. They lasted about 15 minutes, though one came back and watched the rest of the film. I really wasn’t that surprised, because Don Jon is a pretty hard R, especially in terms of language and subject matter. (This is, after all, a movie about a compulsive masturbator/Internet porn addict.) Is that what drove them from the theater? I don’t know, but it seems a good bet. This has the most explicit and frankly sexual dialogue I’ve encountered in a film since Barry Sandler’s screenplay for Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (1984). That’s worth considering if you’re weighing whether or not Don Jon belongs on your moviegoing list.
Myself, I find it a film that’s much easier to admire than actually like — and that has more to do with the overbearing Italian-American and New Jersey cliches than any discomfort with the film’s themes. In fact, thematically, the whole porn addiction business is more symptomatic of Jon’s (Gordon-Levitt) actual problems. Jon is a guy who — according to his own description — defines his life by his devotion to his friends, his family, his ladies, his church, his car, his apartment and his porn. By the end of the film, all of those things have undergone some kind of change. It’s not that they’re all less than they seemed — though some definitely are — but that they are no longer quite what he thought they were. Jon has earned the “Don Jon” nickname because he always goes home with a hot new girl every weekend. But he’s also unfulfilled by this, finding that he actually enjoys his time watching and wanking to Internet porn more than these conquests.
This changes when he falls for Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) — a gum-smacking, showy item who looks like a dream come true to Jon. In fact, he thinks she’s worth changing for — including monogamy and no porn. The question isn’t just whether he can be what she wants, but whether he really wants what she has to offer. He might take her home to meet the folks (parents Tony Danza and Glenne Headley and sister Brie Larson). He might stop the weekend bar cruisings. He might even go to night school to better himself, but the porn — and his sense of self — that’s another matter. In fact, transferring his porn viewing to his phone is what initiates Jon’s “meet awkward” with older woman/fellow student Esther (Julianne Moore), who poses the sure-to-be-immortal question: “Are you watching people fucking on your phone?” She doesn’t disapprove exactly, but she has other ideas about porn.
What follows from this point will either make or break the film for you. (I kind of wish the ladies had stuck it out, because this might well have redeemed it for them.) I’m in the “make it” column, but all I’ll say about what follows this meeting is that it isn’t what you expect. There are elements of everything from Annie Hall (1977) to the aforementioned Crimes of Passion in what’s to come, and I’m not spoiling them. I will note that Brie Larson has perhaps the film’s most blissful moment. Beyond that, I’ll stay mum.Ultimately, it becomes clear that Gordon-Levitt is neither this way nor that about the topic of porn. Porn is, in fact, something of a MacGuffin. It’s merely the least socially acceptable element in a life bogged down by largely meaningless routines. Gordon-Levitt’s direction leaves little question of this by repeating the same basic camera set-ups to depict these routines. Jon is always shown going to church the same way, he always enters the gym the same way, etc. (I suspect that a second look at the film would reveal a lot of patterns.) What the film becomes is the story of a guy who finally starts to examine why he’s doing what he does. It’s definitely an auspicious start for a first-time filmmaker. Rated R for nudity, language, drug use, and graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher