Monday, September 30, 2013

Image Readjustment, Via Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jon and Scarlett Johansson as Barbara in Mr. Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon". Universal Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, September 30, 2013

"Every man watches porn," says Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) after she catches him on his laptop doing what he does 30 to 40 times a week: masturbating to women having sex.  In "Don Jon", written and directed by Mr. Gordon-Levitt, Jon, a devout New Jersey Catholic and an Italian-American, cannot live without porn but can live without women.  "Love" is a word dirtier than the XXX-rated imagery he lavishes in.  Relationships aren't Jon's speed.  A narcissist and misogynist, Jon harshly and crudely dismisses women.  He can't workout at the local gym or say the Lord's Prayer any harder.  Jon's car is his first love and his priest his most trusted entity ahead of the chauvinist braggarts he's buddies with.

Jon has fallen hard for Barbara but another woman, Esther (Julianne Moore), who has been trying to get in touch with herself after tragedy, appears on cue as if a fairy god-MILF to influence Jon's approach to women.  While Barbara, in true soap opera melodrama fashion, scolds Jon for watching porn, Esther quietly goes expanded school, suggesting erotica to him.  "This is really hot," she says casually.  Don Jon" wisely avoids discussing differences between porn and erotica.  Another film less confident about itself would have tipped its hand. 

Not unlike science fiction in the way it depicts men's feelings, self-love, relationships and interpersonal connection, "Don Jon" operates on two poles.  On one hand it mocks Hollywood romantic comedies as plastic.  Jon believes the knight-on-a-white-horse love story is women's porn that the fairer sex gets high on.  ("Titanic", which teenage girls and women saw over and over again in 1997 and 1998, has its movie poster on a wall in one character's bedroom.  Interestingly "The Notebook" is conspicuous by its absence.)  On the other hand, "Don Jon" showcases the pornographic imagery that Jon, who goes to night school, makes love to.  Both visuals offer artificial or autoerotic fulfillment. 

In its tone "Don Jon" has a clever one-two punch.  It characterizes the fantasy world of love it mocks with flighty, exaggerated jauntiness while presenting reality with a dark, blunt hammer via abrupt edits, the kind you'd expect in a horror movie.  This is Jon's horror movie, in which he has to entertain the possibility that his porn world as he knows it, is dead.  Barbara is the film's hammer, a woman more parody and device than real character, offered as a cynical real world rejoinder to generic white linen love stories, as if to say, "this is what relationships are really like."  Meanwhile, Jon's family, a vintage sitcom take-off in their own right, cannot understand why he hasn't married Barbara yet.

One of the most surprising things about "Don Jon", apart from being unpredictable, is the depth and level of consideration the intrepid Mr. Gordon-Levitt puts into an impressive feature film directing effort.  He brings a conversation about intimacy -- specifically what men do in their bedrooms, on laptops or in hallways, with or without women -- to the forefront in a bedtime story and cautionary tale for adults.  "Don Jon" succeeds because it doesn't cop out to restraint to tell a safe, convenient story.  What the film doesn't entertain is: how, for example, do the men in the porn Jon (and we) see view women?  What if Jon himself were a porn star on top of everything else, and not a regular Joe?

There's palpable, sexual tension between Ms. Moore and Mr. Gordon-Levitt, both good here in their roles as bereft figures.  Each character is exaggerated, including Don, who may remind some moviegoers of The Situation from "Jersey Shore".  That Don's last name is "Martello" and similar to "Manero", the last name of the lead character in "Saturday Night Fever", isn't coincidence.  Both strut their stuff, no pun intended, and vulnerability percolates beneath their macho surfaces.  There's two soundtracks for Jon, an internal one (feelings) and an external one (false bravado).  Which one rules?  One could say "Don Jon" also works as the ultimate male fantasy: porn, young women and older women, all in one.  Few men in the audience may argue with that.  A few women may.

Every woman in "Don Jon" except Jon's virtually mute but all-knowing sister (Brie Larson) is an optic.  Just when you think Mr. Gordon-Levitt is insulting them, he uses any sexist or shallow representations as subversion.  The smart money says "Don Jon" displays women in a one-dimensional way and will later restore them to message movie status in which Jon concludes that "pornography abuses women".  If "Don Jon" ended that way it would pander to the lowest of bidders.  It's beyond clear that a sizable number of women have been abused in pornography (see "Lovelace", for one.)

This thought-provoking film however, has a twist.  In "Don Jon" it isn't that gentlemen prefer youth; they prefer enlightenment.  If "Jerry Maguire" had one of its characters at "hello", "Don Jon" has one of its characters at "I love you".  The director clearly learned from his film experiences.  In mood "Don Jon" has an undercurrent reminiscent of "(500) Days Of Summer", in which Mr. Gordon-Levitt had the tables turned on him by Zooey Deschanel.  That film had the intelligence and sense of male longing and desperation that "Don Jon" exhibits.

"Don Jon", an internal monologue in the head of its protagonist, is about masculinity, image and what it means to be a man literally and figuratively in touch with himself and women in a rapidly-evolving technological age.  Mr. Gordon-Levitt rips up a John Wayne playbook and presents a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, a porn addict with a heart of gold.  He's not the brutal, misogynist Neanderthal Jonathan Fuerst of "Carnal Knowledge".  Jon doesn't have a caveman stick to wield.  In truth, despite his own protestations Jon is all heart and commitment.  His daily routines prove it.  It's just a question of the kind of commitment Jon wants.

There's a subtlety and sweetness about "Don Jon", a playboy with substance ala Ryan Gosling in "crazy, stupid, love.", which starred Ms. Moore ("Boogie Nights").  The film also shows condom use.  To a lesser extent "Don Jon" also looks at the problematic worship of iconography, and the Catholic Church.

A film with plenty of swagger, ambition and sensitivity, "Don Jon" rolls the dice and wins.  

Also with: Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke, Paul Ben-Victor and a few cameo appearances from people you will recognize.

"Don Jon" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use
The film's running time is one hour and 32 minutes. 

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