Article by: Dan Clark
Joesph Gordan-Levitt has seemingly been everywhere as of late. He has unquestionably come a very long way since his days as a child star. Recently his career ventured into entirely new territory with the release of Don Jon. He has moved behind the camera for the first time as both writer and director.
Don Jon is about a man who only truly cares about a few things in life. Among that list are his body, his pad, his family, and perhaps most importantly his porn. This directorial debut assuredly lands on the positive side. It is charming, clever, and extremely engaging. Unlike most Romantic Comedies—if you even want to consider this a Romantic Comedy—it actually has something to say. Now there are some bumps along this newly paved road. Some of the editing trappings and stylistic choices are a fairly heavy-handed, and the final act could leave a lot of people cold. Still, what you are left with is a well told story about the misgivings and misunderstandings of relationships.
In a way Don Jon works as a cross between Steve McQueen’s Shame and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook with a minute touch of the Jersey Shore. Similar to the character in Shame Jon has an addiction many would not see as any sort of problem. Those inner demons that have contributed to this issue could certainly be traced back to his rather dysfunctional family. Tony Danza, who plays Jon’s father, nearly steals the show with his fowl mouth antics. Jon, who apparently comes from a long legacy of men not even owning shirts with sleeves, is the type of person many men would ignorantly idealize. His streak of going home with a different lady every night has become legendary with his friends. Though Jon has no issues getting the ladies, he actually prefers the virtual sexual sensation that pornography provides. So much so he is unable to live without it’s embrace.
Jon is a character that has a lot of hidden complexities so it is understandable Gordan-Levitt would slate himself to play the title role. If done incorrectly Jon could come off as a one dimensional cartoonish buffoon. As the story plays out Jon develops into this sympathetic figure that is longing to become whole. There is a static sadness to his life. His routine in consistent and unmoving—as if deviation from this set plan would cause some sort of self-reflection he is not yet willing or ready to handle. When deviation does occur you begin to see him question many of his own methods.
Gordan-Levitt tries to do everything possible to eliminate that boyish charm he is so famous for. He is mostly successful, nevertheless there are times when it feels like he is playing a character and not living a role. His thick Jersey accent and buffed-up physique occasionally come off as excessive window dressing, though that may be by design as the character of Jon is continuously playing towards others expectations.
He is an amoeba waiting to be shape and eventually someone comes along who is ready, willing, and able to mold him into a new image. That someone is the ‘dime’ Barbara, played by the exquisite Scarlett Johannson. For the first time Jon is willing to play the long game and actually develops a relationship with Barbara to the chagrin of his friends. Johannson, who is typically more subdued in her roles, dives head first into her ‘jersey girl’ persona. She and Gordan-Levitt are seeping with strong sexual chemistry. Their back and forth provides for a lot of standout moments, especially a hilariously intense encounter in an apartment hallway.
Gordan-Levitt uses this relationship to show the unrealistic expectations that are formed due to popular culture. Whether it is a Romantic Comedy sugarcoating the difficulties of relationships, or pornography showcasing exaggerated sexual experiences, those who are unable to separate fact from embellished fiction are doomed to suffer through unsatisfying relationships.
This commentary isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but it’s still effective. Part of what makes it work is Gordan-Levitt’s directorial style. When Don Jon was first released at Sundace earlier this year as Don Jon’s Addiction many wondered if it would garner an NC-17 rating. Right from the get-go it is easy to see why. He took an almost YouTube, or perhaps more fitting YouPorn, cinematic tactic with a barrage of quick clips and fast edits. You see up close and personal how seriously Jon takes his pornography. That along with a fast pace and sly voiceover by Gordan-Levitt’s gives it an excessive slick style. However, that style does eventually wear thin near the end. By the time you are subjected to the fourth or fifth montage of porn clips it begins to come off as a tad bit excessive.
There is an attempt to juxtapose that style in the final act. The pace begins to slow, the style is stripped way down, and there is a much broader use of a naturalistic camera. This drastic tonal shift was at first off-putting. It was an abrupt change of tone that causes the pacing to feel jagged. When you see where it’s going it makes sense, but it also appears as a cheap way to add some extra emphasis to its final twist. That final twist is interesting in its concept, yet clumsy in its execution. Also it tries to make an obvious notion into a profound finding. Even though Don Jon did not quite stick the landing, the routine was strong enough to allow it to walk away a winner.