Who would have thought a film ostensibly about porn addiction would be enjoyable in a non-titillating fashion?
But then, Don Jon, an artistic dramedy trifecta by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who serves as writer, star, and director), is not really about porn addiction. That’s just the hook to get the viewers in the seats. What unfolds on the screen is a somewhat realistic and non-judgmental presentation of the life of Jersey boy “’Don’ Jon Martello” (Levitt) a young man who earned his moniker from his ability to bed “10s”. Jon is very happy with his “situation”: He loves his car, his job, his pad, his family, his friends...and his porn. He absolutely LOVES his porn as it gives him something that he can’t get from actual sex no matter how many 10s he scores; and he scores a lot of them. However, things change when he encounters two women who impact his eye: “Barbara Sugarman” (a very fetching, glammed up Scarlett Johansson, doing her best Drea de Matteo/”Adriana La Cerva” impersonation), who is the film’s epitome of “10-dom” and “Esther”, an older woman whose ditzy demeanor is not all that it seems.
The film’s title, a play on Don Juan, is emblematic of the film’s indie-quirky stylistic approach. It is lofty and down to earth, quixotic yet straightforward; a combination made more explicit by Nathan Johnson's use of music, whose score is peppered with lofty arias and strings juxtaposed with street bass-worthy fare ("Good Vibrations", anyone?). Instead of jarring, these stylistic contrasts not only flow with but compliment the narrative.
Acting professionally since the age of four, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has has obviously learned from his experiences both in front of and behind the camera. It’s very difficult for a film both written and directed by its star to not come across as a "vanity project", but somehow Levitt pulls it off. What is also rare is the lack of extraneous scenes. Virtually every frame in the film exists for the sole purpose of advancing the story and its themes, which range from hypocrisy to emotional isolation (and if a scene does seem to go long, it is to deftly make a definitive point). He shows how superficial veneer can mask the longing and/or unhappiness that lies beneath. Levitt also makes the very defensible argument that mainstream (read, “acceptable”) romance media (movies, novels, etc.) are just as addictive and unrealistic as its “smutty” counterpart; extremes on either side that bring about unrealistic presentations of their subject matter and thus, arguably, can cause disappointment in the “real world” (In a particularly inspired sequence, Levitt utilizes celebrity cameos to highlight the unreality of the romcom genre). Another powerful theme in this film is communication or, rather, the lack thereof. Characters may talk a lot, but say little. People may hear, but rarely listen (and careful of the ones who don’t speak). As such, Don Jon also satirizes perfunctory way life is lived. Even something as deeply personal as attending confession is treated as a perfunctory matter, where even the priest dolls out penance with the bored efficiency of handing out change in a financial transaction. Scenes of Jon’s life are virtually repeated to good effect, with Levitt's direction altering each reiteration of each scene with a slight nuance to evidence the changes that his character undergoes, whether the character realizes it or not.
The performances seem real, at times brutally so. Jon is a matter of fact, self-aware individual. He knows porn fills a void but he doesn’t know what that is. As his primary love interest, Johansson is his opposite number, a Mata Hari who gets annoyed when a strand of hair is out of place. But it is a testament to both Levitt’s direction and Johansson’s ability that her character is never really portrayed in a negative light. Their relationship plays as very real. If Johansson is the “vamp”, Julianne Moore’s Esther is the film’s “earth mother”; albeit a subtly sexy one. Her character is at turns manic and grounded, light yet filled with pathos. If Barbara is Jon’s mirror reflect, then Esther is his contrasting comparison. Moore is beguiling even when she’s at her most innocuous. One of the standout performances comes from Tony Danza as Jon’s father, “Jon Sr.” Just hearing Danza curse in fuggedaboutit fashion alone is worth the price of admission, and his interactions with Levitt pop. There is an affection between that two actors that does translates believably onto the scene (A probable a holdover from when the two worked together in 1994’s Angels in The Outfield). As “Angela”, Jon Jr.’s mother, Glenne Headly seems like the doting stereotypical Italian mother; it’s a façade for a longing the character herself experiences. The marriage, and the family, is a microcosm for all the themes the film explores. However, as in real life, this situation is not wrapped in neat little bow by the film’s end.
This is not the first film Gordon-Levitt has directed, but I would go so far as to say it is his best. Don Jon is a quiet little film; one that is filled with honesty; humor both broad and subtle; pathos; and quirk. It will probably get lost in the shuffle in the season of Oscar consideration, and that is to the film’s detriment. It is a sharp, well written, acted and directed film; one that’s almost literary in execution. When films are selected for Oscar consideration, it is my hope this one makes the cut.