DIR/WRI: Joseph Gordon-Levitt • PRO: Ram Bergman • DOP: Thomas Kloss • ED: Lauren Zuckerman • MUS: Nathan Johnson • DES: Meghan C. Rogers • CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has enjoyed a great reputation as one of the most respected actors of this generation after his performances in films such as Brick, 50/50 and Inception. Now, one of American cinema’s brightest and most talented young faces has made the big transition to writing and directing. Don Jon, which he also stars in, is in fact his feature film directorial debut. But is that really what the draw of the film is? Let’s be honest, the thing that is most likely to attract people’s attentions is the fact that it is built around the concept of pornography and fits perfectly among the many other works representing American cinema’s childish fixation with sexual taboos. Unfortunately, there is no exception here. Childishness is once again the order of the day.
This is the story of a man whose friends call him Don Jon. He has earned his name through his reputation as a heartbreaker. Every night he goes out to a club, he brings a girl back to his flat. Yet, no matter how much sex he has in the course of a week, he still cannot get over the fact that he simply finds pornography better than the real thing. In fact, his inability to enjoy real sexual encounters leads him to rush to the computer after each session to look for a clip that will really be able to get him off.
In its best moments, Don Jon resembles the earlier works of Martin Scorsese. This is not only because its stints at black comedy seem to be on the same humorous wavelength as The King of Comedy, but also because of its representation of religion as a source of purifying source of penance and guilt. This is something Scorsese has always been concerned with, and shows prominently in the character of Jon who confesses his sin every week and recites his prayers as he works out.
We could also draw parallels between Jon and Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver or a mixture of Charlie and Johnny Boy from Mean Streets, yet more than anyone else he seems to resemble this generation’s version of Tony Manero. He is a heartbreaker after all, and while he does not dance, he seems to have an incredible magnetic charm that he uses to easily attract the opposite sex. However, much like Saturday Night Fever’s central figure, Jon has found his match with a girl who apparently loves to drive him crazy. Barbara becomes his ultimate object of desire. Scarlett Johansson, featured here in one of her most fun roles, plays this devilish temptress. Her irresistible beauty fits the femme fatale description perfectly and her lively fun performance is among the best things in the film.
The film does have its fair share of one-liners and funny gags. What it simply lacks is a rewarding depth of any kind. The film not only lacks the tension of the aforementioned films by Scorsese and the painful honesty of Shame by Steve McQueen, but even the tenderness of a romantic comedy like The 40 Year Old Virgin. On top of that, it is never quite certain whether the lead character’s obsession with porn is that unhealthy – neither does he ever really feel like he is spiritually troubled by it. His confessions are as casual as routine check-ups to the doctor.
Even the characters seem to be all too detached from reality. It’s tiring to see yet another film that chooses to ignore the times’ financial condition, and it is all too easy to once again overlook the fact that there is no way Jon can afford to live an easy life in his own apartment apparently working as a bartender and studying in college. Even Esther, a troubled but positive older woman who attends the same course as Jon and for some unknown reason wants to become his friend, brings little believable emotional depth to the table despite Julianne Moore’s good-natured performance. Incidentally, Moore is also among the only main actors in the film who is not forcing an accent…
Don Jon is quite simply a well-packaged comedy, which predictably develops into a conventionally structured film. It is a cartoonish representation of reality, perhaps as genuine as the porn clips the lead character adores. Even the style of the film is over zealous and its uses of flash frames and slow motion are part of a tried and tested suit that has been worn repeatedly. The screenplay is not very impressive either. Its conclusions are bigoted and its characters nothing short of stereotypical. Of course, there is room to grow, and even Don Jon has interesting elements that show Gordon-Levitt has potential talent behind the camera. Perhaps all he has to be is more daring rather than simply provocative.
18 (See IFCO for details)
Don Jon is released on 15th November 2013