That a movie about a gel-haired, Camaro-driving Jerseyite with a porn addiction and a dysfunctional Italian Catholic family doesn’t come off as a parody is an accomplishment in and of itself. It’s a toss-up whether Don Jon owes its sincerity most to Joseph Gordon-Levitt the actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt the writer or Joseph Gordon-Levitt the director, as he serves all three roles admirably in this film. During the movie Gordon-Levitt’s Jon eats Sunday family meals in just his undershirt, talks about “smashing” with his boys outside a pizza point, actually smashes a myriad of anonymous leggy women and, oh yeah, watches pornography with reckless abandon, but it never feels disingenuous. Don Jon is the most earnest movie about pornography you’ll see this year.
Okay, Don Jon is not really about pornography. Instead, it’s about the way media we spend so much of our lived immersed in – or, rather, immersing ourselves in – affects our perceptions and expectations. If that sounds lofty and academic, the film itself manages to also be immensely entertaining and funny.
In Don Jon, Goron-Levitt plays the titular Jon Martello, a part-time bartender and full-time stud in his suburban New Jersey town. Meeting Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) puts a halt to his meaningless flings with anonymous women and to his more committed relationship with anonymous women he watches have sex on the internet. But like any addict, he can’t stay away for long. Jon is no intellectual and lacks even an ounce of self-awareness and Gordon-Levitt is great in a role that’s completely against type for him.
As Jon and Barbara’s relationship progresses, both prove themselves to be not quite fit for commitment as each has developed unrealistic expectations for the other: Jon through the uninhibited women in porn he’s constantly watching and Barbara through the perfect, selfless men of the romantic comedies she so enjoys. Those who criticize Johansson for being good but never great should meet Barbara Sugarman, a wicked maneater disguised behind an array of curve-hugging outfits and over-the-top accessories, Hackensack’s siren. Johansson deserves praise for her performance, her Barbara is so fully realized you can almost taste her sticky lip gloss through the screen.
Gordon-Levitt’s direction is at its strongest as he compares Jon’s porn habit to Barbara’s devotion to rom-coms. Their eyes glaze over and faces go slack, as Gordon-Levitt’s camera compares two people sucked into a fantasy they just know they both deserve in real life. The film is full of clever stylistic flourishes. The routine of Jon’s life is shot with a sort of dramatic monotony, his own personal GTL regime of gym, church, family. It’s self-regulation he’s confused with self-actualization. Gordon-Levitt’s passion project is also brilliantly subversive of Catholicism, Jon’s weekly trips to mass are less out of faith than they are out of habit and his confession is less cathartic than it is ritualistic. His eventual disenchantment comes as the same time as his eventual awakening.
That awakening comes courtesy of Julianne Moore, who is, as always, an absolute delight. Moore plays a darkly funny, deeply sad woman Jon meets at the night school course Barbara has forced him to take. Moore here gets a chance to exercise her two biggest muscles as an actor: deadpan comedy and emotional devastation. As Esther, she packs a deadly one-two punch.
The film’s major hiccup comes via a dramatic tonal shift in its third act. And while it’s a bit jarring, the film doesn’t lose its appeal. Joseph Gordon-Levitt here has proven himself to be a filmmaker with interesting things to say. Here’s hoping he’ll keep saying them.