Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proved he’s one of the most talented actors in Hollywood, so naturally the next task was to pick up a pen, write a script, and then jump behind the camera to direct it. Oh and produce the film through his HitRECord Films banner. So with all that new responsibility, it’d make sense to make the sort of movies people have made before. The kind audiences know and love. Go with something safe. Or he could make a movie about a guy addicted to porn.
Don Jon follows Jon, a New Jersey guido who only loves a few things. His body. His pad. His ride. His family. His church. His boys. His girls. His porn. That’s thrown for a loop when he lays his eyes on the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, a princess named Barbara Sugarman. Instead of getting the one-night stand he’s used to, he has to actually court Barbara, working to gain her affection, and finally starting a relationship. Still, even the best sex he’s ever had from a dime like Barbara just doesn’t compare to his porn, so he turns back to it. Unfortunately for him, porn is not cool with Barbara, who happens to walk in on Jon exploring the seedier parts of the web.
The writing for this movie is wonderful, not just from a simple scene-to-scene, line-to-line perspective, but as an overarching story it’s incredibly tight, showing Gordon-Levitt truly is one of the master storytellers working today. While the film’s main message obviously has to do with addiction, specifically porn addiction, and how that affects those afflicted, it seems Gordon-Levitt is getting at something even more wide-reaching with this. Jon and all those around him are prime examples of most of society’s failure to communicate face-to-face. Other than the obvious way this is shown (Brie Larson never looking up from her phone), the rest are much more subtle. His father (played superbly by Tony Danza) can’t ever look away from football. One of his friends doesn’t even think to ask a girl’s name when he gets her number. But strongest of all is the fact that Jon is uncomfortable with being looked in the eye. Behind a keyboard and a computer screen, eye-to-eye contact is rarely necessary, and you’re never actually looking anyone in the eye when watching porn. When he meets someone who wants to genuinely listen to him, ask him personal questions, and look him straight in the eye while doing it, it’s an experience that throws off his routine more drastically than anything else.
Not to say porn addiction isn’t wide-reaching. Any addictions that aren’t to drugs seem to get swept under the rug as not being real problems. Gordon-Levitt takes a common one of these and crafts the whole film around it, showing that just because a harmful substance isn’t being physically put into a body doesn’t mean an addiction can’t be a negative thing. Jon is an obsessive character. From porn to cleaning, he has to have everything exactly as he always has, and the way Gordon-Levitt sets up that routine is one of the most striking parts of the film.
Most of the obsessions are set up through the consistencies of the film. Many of them are extremely subtle, but the skill with which the whole film is stylized seems like the work of a far more experienced director, and is close to unrivaled for first-timers. Every bit of Jon’s lifestyle, and thus the film, follows the same pattern. This is best shown in the gym scenes. He always goes to the gym alone. He always prays his Hail Marys while he works out, breathing out to utter the line as he breathes out as a part of his lift. That makes it all the more jarring when Barbara tags along and interrupts by asking if he’s talking to himself. It isn’t the question that’s the problem. It’s the fact that the question breaks his routine.
Staying in the gym, Gordon-Levitt deftly inserts the same shot of Jon walking down the hall before every single workout. For most of the film, it seems like unnecessary shoe-leather, just taking up time and providing an unwanted transition between scenes. But at the end of the film, when Jon breaks from his routine and stops to play basketball rather than heading straight to the weights, the deviation from the pattern shows his growth in the simplest way. And sometimes the simplest way is the strongest. Brilliant move for a first-time director, and that’s just a small example of the many wise moves he made behind the camera. Movies like this show why I find myself looking forward to movies made by writer/directors more and more. Yes, those don’t always work, but when done well, they have a unified feel and consistency that is hard to achieve with more than one brain having an idea of how a story should be told.
As great a job as Gordon-Levitt did behind the camera, he was even better on screen. Watching him play Jon, it’s almost hard to believe that he grew up in California rather than New Jersey. Not that playing a guido is as daunting a task as playing Robert Lincoln or Bruce Willis or any of the other impressive characters Gordon-Levitt has taken on, but if done wrong, it would’ve been a disaster. And a guido is definitely the sort of character that could easily be done wrong. He’s spot-on in creating that character, but he doesn’t stop at simply playing a gym-rat from Jersey well. He plays a character that you genuinely care about, despite a bunch of unsavory qualities.
Jon has a wall, but it cracks throughout the movie, and at no point does Gordon-Levitt ever seem to have the wrong height wall or the wrong number of cracks. Showing growth is where far too many performances fall short. The change is either not evident aside from dialogue, or it’s simply too strong and thus not believable. That’s definitely not the case here, as the Jon we see at the end of the film is a changed man, while still being the same person. It’s a wonderful performance by Gordon-Levitt, showing that he can direct himself just as well as he’s directed by others.
He’s not the only solid performance in the cast, as really everyone is enjoyable to watch. Scarlett Johansson is wonderful in her role as the spoiled, naive Jersey girl, capturing that character almost as well as Gordon-Levitt does his. She gets completely lost into Barbara, and it makes the character a real treat to watch. But still, Gordon-Levitt is the star here, and I wish his performance would garner the award consideration it deserves. Unfortunately, I don’t see the Academy handing out awards for films about porn anytime soon.
On the note of porn, this definitely isn’t the sort of movie to take the kids to. There are moments that are uncomfortable, and the prevalence of offensive language and inserted porn clips could be off-putting to some, but I was definitely for it. There’s a difference between language and nudity that is there for the sake of language and nudity, and those same things being used to further the plot along. The first option is seen in a lot of bad horror movies, and is always blatantly obvious. Don Jon’s R-rating definitely falls into the latter category, as it all adds to the themes and story of the movie. I sincerely hope that the Blu-Ray includes the NC-17 original cut of the film.
Don Jon is an impressive effort from a first time writer and director and an excellent performance by an established actor. From start to finish the story is compelling. It’s a movie that has something to say and says it eloquently, which is important above all else. I can’t wait to see what Joseph Gordon-Levitt comes up with next.
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