Monday, October 7, 2013

Don Jon (**)

Written and Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Thanks to the internet, the development of wifi technology and the boom of video ripping/bootleg movies, pornography is more available to the public than it ever has been before. There is a lot consumption going on right now, with Spotify allowing its users to take in as much pop music as is possible and YouTube letting people hop from viral video to viral video until your entire day is gone, and your mind is racing with cats playing pianos or crotch punches. Porno is also a major player in this cultural development, though obviously people are a lot more mum about it. Don Jon wants to be the first movie to fully embrace this part of Modern American sociology, and its certainly different that a wide release discusses porn addiction, but this film's bite is rather soft and takes too much time to really make its point, which doesn't really have anything to do with pornography at all.

The titular Jon (first time writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a New Jersey guido, nicknamed 'The Don' by his buddies for his perfect streak of bedding women every time he goes out. It's all a routine with him: days are spent working on his body, Sundays are spent at church and with family, and nights that aren't spent working as a bartender, are spent finding another of many ladies. Jon usually doesn't have to work too hard, his boyish good looks allowing him to force himself deep into women's panties without a whole lot of effort. But while Jon's streak is solid and intact, he still cannot give up one particular habit: watching hardcore internet porn. In fact, he even prefers it to actual sex. The absolute fantasy of porn allows Jon to lose himself in a vision of ultimate sexual ecstasy, a fantasy that includes an image of women willing to do absolutely anything to make the male participant happy. Normal girls won't put up with the positions of varying difficulty, the copious amounts of oral fixation and the money shot at the end, so he prefers to help himself, usually multiple times a day.

Jon's entire lifestyle exists on a delicate balance. Even his porn consumption is balanced out by weekly church visits, where he confesses his web browsing sins and is then given the appropriate amount of prayer to wash the shame away. His dinners with family also have a certain repetition: his father Jon Sr. (Tony Danza) always with his eyes on the football game playing on the flatscreen in the other room, his little sister Monica (Brie Larson) endlessly texting without ever speaking, and his mother Angela (Glenne Headly) serving everyone's plate before bemoaning Jon's reckless bachelorhood. That famed bachelorhood is threatened, though, when he runs into Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a full-lipped beauty in a tight dress. Barbara is charmed by Jon, but she's the first woman in a while who's able to escape his seduction without doing the deed. Barbara has a certain vision of romance, painted mostly by Hollywood romances where the bookish beauty and the handsome hunk fall in love at first sight and chivalry reigns supreme.

Jon is so taken by Barbara's buxom gorgeousness that he's even willing to play the part, but can he give up the porn? That seems like a whole different kind of challenge. After taking night classes to show Barbara he's interested in his future, he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), a middle-aged fellow student that Jon catches crying in the hallway. They become uncommon friends before Esther has some tender advice for Jon's view of sexuality and romance. In its dealings with regards Jon's relationship with Barbara and Esther, Don Jon goes in certain directions that you really don't expect. And while I'll give the film credit for becoming the exact opposite of what I assumed it would become by its second half, I still have to fault it for making me sit through the first half to get there. It's almost as if the film's arc is supposed to reflect Jon's own transition from misogynistic douchebag to enlightened lover, but that revelation doesn't help me ignore the movie's initial reliance on Italian-American stereotypes and over-produced filmmaking choices.

Not that I found Italian stereotypes to be particularly offensive in any way (my favorite movie is the Coen Brothers' Fargo which has a field day with Midwestern stereotypes), I just did not understand why Gordon-Levitt chose that particular group to showcase in that movie, as it doesn't really add anything other than the chance to laugh at Tony Danza slurping spaghetti like he's the Lady waiting for his Tramp. Perhaps the influx of shows like Jersey Shore have convinced the new director that Jersey Italians are the perfect canvas to paint this despicable character onto - now that would be a bad reason to do that. I think Gordon-Levitt did it for laughs, but I found them few and far between and I ached when being forced to watch the men of the family eat their food in undershirts, as if all of the truly authentic scenes of Italians in movies like Saturday Night Fever were originally playing it for laughs as well. They weren't and this movie wastes a lot of time trying to convince us otherwise.

But that's not where Gordon-Levitt's real heart lies. Don Jon's main point of interest seems to be in how porn had disillusioned men's feelings toward emotional intimacy versus how Hollywood romances have warped female expectations toward romantic love. It's an interesting face-off, and one that I think the studios won't like very much, more or less being compared to porn. I'll give Gordon-Levitt bonus points for having the balls to do it. But for one, I'm not really sure how much weight this argument carries, nor do I think the movie puts in a whole lot effort in really pushing its point. Similarly, it takes obvious jibes at the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, getting laughs at the church's process of reciting the "Lord's Prayer" scrubbing all wrongdoing clean. But on both subjects, it never really takes a venomous stand. Perhaps that wasn't Gordon-Levitt's plan, but when the allusions are so obvious it makes me wonder what the point is, if you're not going to take a serious bite.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favorite performers right now, and he's been in the business since he was very young, so it only makes sense that he's picked up enough tips throughout the years to direct his own feature, let alone write his own screenplay. I've always preferred the dough-eyed, boyish Gordon-Levitt from (500) Days of Summer and 10 Things I Hate About You to the newfound hunk from this film and Looper. There's always been a Tom Hanks-ian everyman quality to Gordon-Levitt, but he's going through a very manly, wannabe-franchise-star period, and I think we're lucky that he's not getting sucked into some Batman franchise after all (all yours, Affleck!). As debuts go, the filmmaking in Don Jon could be better. He makes interesting, if not obvious choices with the camera and the editing that really draws attention to the fact that he is the man pulling all of the strings. His motif of repetition through out was meant to make certain reflections on Jon, but I found the whole thing to get a bit tiring as it went on. There have to be other ways to make that point visually.

It doesn't surprise me at all that Don Jon gets better as Julianne Moore comes more to the forefront. She is such a skilled performer, so far ahead of most actors working in the movies today, and is able to imbue all kinds of characters with such indescribable watchability. The character of Esther has a lot of screenplay contradictions that don't always make sense, but Moore takes them and makes them humane. And as the film slowly unveils Esther's dimensions, Moore expertly surprises audiences as this character becomes so much more than the film suggests early on. As Gordon-Levitt's female guido counterpoint, Johansson continues a career upswing that's been in the works for the last few years, but it's a performance that's similar to her work in The Avengers: she excels despite not being given much to do. The character of Barbara reveals herself to be highly flawed down the line, and Johansson doesn't even pretend to provide the character sympathy, but other than the Jersey accent, there isn't a whole lot of scene to chew on. I don't know if Gordon-Levitt will continue to make films, but I suspect he will, just based on how he's tackled his acting projects. If anything, he seems to be good with other actors and has an interest in appropriately provocative material. Should be a fun progression. Hopefully, like Don Jon, he gets better down the line.

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