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Non-Review Review: Don Jon

Don Jon is a confident directorial debut from actor and write Joseph Gordon Levitt. Levitt himself stars as the eponymous “Don”, a stereotypically macho young man from New Jersey, who splits his time between nightclubs, churches, the gym, his car and his pornography addiction. Written and directed by Levitt, Don Jon has a charming lightness that allows the movie to play with some pretty heavy subject matter. (After all, the last major film to explore sex addiction was Shame, which was as brilliant as it was harrowing.)

Don Jon is perhaps the sweetest movie ever made about porn addiction. A superb demonstration of Levitt’s already enviable talents, and a confident and slick feature film directorial debut.

Toast of the town...

Toast of the town…

There’s a sense that Levitt isn’t quite sure what to make of his subject, and how the writer and director (and actor) feels towards this most intriguing of characters. Jon is too well-defined to be a stereotype, as much as the character plays into expectations about a particular subculture, but while Don Jon is fascinated with a male-dominated “one-sided” sex culture, it can’t ever seem to decide whether Jon himself is guilty of perpetuating it, or whether he’s merely an unfortunate victim of popular culture’s perpetuation of the male gaze and objectification.

Don Jon struggles a bit with this dilemma. It never patronises or pities Jon too heavily. Jon is smart and rational, even if a central plot point hinges on the idea that a porn addict has no idea what his internet history is. Still, Levitt allows the characters his rationalisations and his justifications, and it’s quite clear that the character is more than just a stereotypical muscular jock, a member of the iron-pumping subset of New Jersey culture, a culture that is flaunted and lauded on “reality” shows like Jersey Shore.  He’s smart and charming, and even a bit likeable despite his more boorish behaviour.

He's got one hell of a drive...

He’s got one hell of a drive…

Levitt spends a lot of time exploring where Jon’s world view comes from. The movie opens with snippets of pop culture that undoubtedly permeated his young consciousness. He jokes about having access to pornography from even before he installed a VCR in his room. The film’s very first clip is a rather explicit depiction of the male gaze (eyes following a beautiful woman right out of their sockets) in a cartoon squarely aimed at children. “More than just meat,” one commercial for a fast food joint promises with a layer of rich irony, after several lingering seconds treating a bikini-clad model like a glorified prop.

So Jon’s attitudes towards women don’t exist in a vacuum. When we’re introduced to the character and his acquaintances rating women on a scale of one to ten (where Scarlett Johansson is a contentious “dime”), we already understand at least some of the culture that produced Jon and his attitudes towards women. Don Jon is very careful not to condemn its subject entirely, and instead suggest that he lives in a culture where objectification has become something of a social norm, with people constantly connected to and plugged into various media to help cope just a little better.

Barb-ed remarks...

Barb-ed remarks…

Jon’s method of escape, Don Jon suggests, just happens to be pornography. His girlfriend Barbara escapes into dodgy romantic comedies featuring actors like Channing Tatum, Anne Hathaway and Cuba Gooding Jr. His father can’t sit down to a meal without the gigantic television on the background. His sister is constantly texting, even in the church. His mother seems to escape into her own fantasies about what she wants her son’s life to be like. There’s a deliciously heightened absurdity to the world of Don Jon, where everything seems to be larger-than-life, and hyper-real.

At least, unlike most of the rest of the cast, it seems like Jon appreciates that his lifestyle isn’t healthy. Every week, he attends church to confess his sins and to be absolved so he can repeat it all again next week. It’s an old joke, but Levitt executes it well, helping to create a sense of just how routine Jon’s existence is. Bar; car; church; gym; home; repeat. Levitt exaggerates and over-emphasises certain parts of the culture, but it’s a very effective depiction of a particular lifestyle.

Smooth moves...

Smooth moves…

That said, the film isn’t quite sure what to make of Jon. It tries to approach the character with some measure of respect, rather than reducing him to a walking punchline. Jon isn’t a deliberate or mean-spirited “take that” directed at the type of New Jersey subculture that has become overwhelmingly popular in the wake of “reality” television shows exploring that particular class of society. There’s just a sense of discord in how the movie approaches the changes that Jon needs to make by the time the credits role.

Don Jon suggests that his girlfriend is wrong to try to force him to change against his wishes, to take night classes to work in a profession. Jon can’t be anything but what he is, and to expect him to conform to higher class expectations is an unreasonable demand. At one point, Barbara provokes an argument by suggesting that Jon hire a cleaner for his apartment. Over dinner, she suggests that her manager – a professional with a qualification – is just as sexist as anybody else. That doesn’t change just because he earns a six-figure salary. The movie rejects the notion that Jon’s skewed values are intrinsic to his membership of this subculture.

He's really into pumping... iron.

He’s really into pumping… iron.

At the same time, while rejecting the notion that Jon can improve himself by trading his wife-beater for a business suit, the movie does suggest that Jon needs to move away from the overly-masculine subculture in order to become a more well-rounded individual. Rather strangely, the film links Jon’s decision to stop wearing his hair slicked back to his development as a person; his increased personal awareness is coupled with a willingness to question his religious faith. It seems like the movie is trying and struggling to avoid seeming too harsh towards Jon’s background and his origins, but still tackling the core issue.

It doesn’t always succeed, but Don Jon tries admirably. Levitt is a charming performer, and he transforms himself to play Jon. Although his physique is a lot more muscled and ripped than usual, his body language has also shifted. It seems at times like Levitt has completely immersed himself in the character, offering a truly compelling portrayal of a character worlds apart from himself. While the script struggles with how to tackle the issues around Jon’s heritage and the role that this plays in his distorted world view, Levitt jumps right in as a performer. Jon feels like a real person, with all the depth and self-rationalisation that one might expect.

At least they got to the church on time...

At least they got to the church on time…

Levitt is ably supported by a bunch of wonderful performances. Most notably, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore do sterling work in the major female supporting roles. Moore, in particular, is fantastic as one of Jon’s classmates – managed to really expand out a rather sketchy role. Johansson also turns in another impressive performance as Jon’s girlfriend Barbara, even if the character does feel a little two-dimensional by the time the credits role.

Perhaps most surprising is Levitt’s skill as a director. Don Jon has a heightened realism. It seems almost stylised at times, as if unfolding in some bizarre alternate version of New Jersey. In one of the stronger sight gags in a movie bristling with well-observed humour, Jon and his father always sit down to dinner in matching wife-beaters. Levitt keeps the movie light on its feet, and never allows it to become too bogged down. The movie breezes along, and tackles some pretty heavy subject matter with considerable skill. Levitt manages to construct a movie that is occasionally downright moving, despite the hefty issues that he is dealing with.

Don-ning a New Jersey persona...

Don-ning a New Jersey persona…

To be entirely fair, this lightness isn’t always a good thing. For one thing, Jon’s rather “one-sided” attitude towards women gets off a little too lightly, and is never really challenged too forcefully. While the film suggests a difference between the pornography that Jon consumes and the more sophisticated foreign “erotica” enjoyed by another student, the film never directly addresses the notion that the objectification of women might be the key distinction. Euphemisms like “One-sided” and “two-sided” are used a great deal, but it’s suggested that Barbara can be just as “one-sided” as he is.

Don Jon is a wonderfully constructed film, which is clever and charming in equal measure – it’s witty and insightful, and moves along at a fantastic pace. While the film dances around the lead character a little bit, Levitt’s central performance and direction are smart enough to compensate, producing a wonderful director debut from a very talented young man.

7 Responses

  1. On balance, I mostly agree. I do think Gordon-Levitt the actor is better than the director and writer, mostly because I don’t think the lead character is as well developed as you do. Still, I think you make some excellent points.

    Another great review!

    • I would agree with you on Gordon Levitt the writer. While I like how he tries to make Jon more than a stereotype, he doesn’t seem quite sure how to address the whole “porn as women as objects for his gratification” thing. The movie never really deals with the fact that Jon is a misogynist, instead preferring to describe him as “one-sided.”

      But Gordon Levitt the actor is pretty great, and I really liked the direction. He just zips along. It reminds me a lot of Marc Webb’s work on (500) Days of Summer.

      • I agree that he makes some interesting directorial choices. His use of visual motifs is terrific, and the way he subtly parallels Jon Jr and Jon Sr is very clever.

  2. It’s a very interesting move on the part of JGL, and while the final-product may not be perfect, it still has me wondering what he’s got on his plate next. Even if it doesn’t have him dry-humping ScarJo in it. Even then, I’ll still be interested. Good review Darren.

  3. Like this review so much. Love you to read mine on Don Jon, Darren: http://moviesandfilm.blogspot.com/2013/10/reviewdon-jonreading-through.html

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