Don Jon

Movie Information

The Story: A very wayward kind of romantic comedy about a guy who tries to change his ways, especially his proclivity for porn, for a woman he thinks is his dream girl. The Lowdown: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's writing-directing debut is a remarkably assured affair that is also unusually blunt in terms of dealing with sex and porn, which will bother some people. It is a hard film to warm up to, but it's worth the effort.
Genre: Comedy Drama
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson
Rated: R

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

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

19 thoughts on “Don Jon

  1. me

    Assuming Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac gets released this year this might give it some competition as far as explicate material goes.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Assuming Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac gets released this year this might give it some competition as far as explicate material goes.

    Yeah, but Von Trier’s explicitness will never be on more than a handful of screens, not 2400+ like this.

    Has Edwin tried to sway towards the filmspotting nation yet?

    Edwin is no fool.

  3. Me

    This is true, isn’t there supposed to be two versions of Nymphomaniac?

    I remember Edwin wearing the filmspotting shirt when i met him, you mean he doesn’t wear it when you guys go watch a film?

  4. Ken Hanke

    That shirt with the adapted RKO logo? Yes, he wears it occasionally. I’ve thought to myself, “Hey, that’d be pretty neat if it said ‘Radio Pictures’ on it.” That’s about it.

  5. Edwin Arnaudin

    It’s true: I listen to Filmspotting, write in regularly, and occasionally wear the blue RKO-inspired t-shirt. I have an original red FS shirt as well, but it’s now too big for me.

  6. Ken Hanke

    While I have no issue with them appropriating the logo, I think the word “inspired” is generous.

  7. Me

    Edwin, maybe you can talk some sense into Ken, the show and forum are both great, he should check it out.

  8. Me

    Edwin, hasn’t Michael Phillips even read some of your emails?

    Ken, they are always in need of some pithy voicemails for the show, so if you don’t agree with them there’s always that.

  9. Edwin Arnaudin

    Edwin, hasn’t Michael Phillips even read some of your emails?

    Fame and Glory 101

  10. Ken Hanke

    Ken, they are always in need of some pithy voicemails for the show, so if you don’t agree with them there’s always that.

    Chris, it’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with them. It’s simply lacking the inclination — not to mention time — to deal with them. I have nothing particularly for or against them.

  11. Me

    “Edwin, hasn’t Michael Phillips even read some of your emails?

    Fame and Glory 101”

    I look forward to reading your collection of “Letters to a Young Poet” one day.

Leave a Reply to Edwin Arnaudin ×

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.