Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been a part of the film business from the time he was a kid in “3rd Rock From The Sun,” to indie-hit “(500) Days of Summer” and recently reaching blockbuster status in “Looper.”
Gordon-Levitt knows how to be a part of a quality movie and that touch for success shows in his recent writing-directorial debut “Don Jon,” which manages to be entertaining and daring, if significantly flawed.
“Don Jon” follows Jon Martello, a prolific seducer who wonders why porn continues to be the most satisfying part of his sex life. Fair warning, the movie shows his connection to the explicit videos via a wildly visual montage — not for the sexually timid and definitely (!) not to watch with your parents, little sib or anyone yet to learn about the birds and the bees.
When faced with the gap in his real-life and computer-screen fulfillment Jon comes up with a casual answer as undeveloped as Jon himself is unself-aware: He can “lose himself” in porn, but not in sex.
But then Jon meets a girl beyond his regular routine of women, a ”10″ named Barbara Sugarman—or as he and his friends derogatorily call her, a “dime” — played by the voluptuous and vividly entertaining Scarlett Johansson. For Barbara, Jon decides to go for “the long game” (what some people would call dating).
But alas, Barbara Sugarman has an agenda of her own. She is controlling and leverages sex to get Jon to do whatever she wants. In the midst of some dirty dancing, for example, she makes him agree to go to night school and meet her friends and family.
All Sugarman’s notions of love and relationships are from romantic comedies, hilariously shown in a scene with Jon at the movie with the appropriately shmaltzy title, “Someone Special,” with cameo appearances from a hammed up Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum.
But even after Barbara has sex with Jon, he still can’t lose himself like he can in the world of porn, and his addiction persists. Soon Barbara discovers his secret and demands he never watch porn again. The proclamation brings Jon to the depths of watching porn on his phone during his night class. He just needs his fix. He needs to get that connection he is missing with real people.
Jon tells everyone he loves Barbara, including his overdramatic mother played by Glenne Headly. Jon is dedicated to his family which is mostly shown in scenes between him and his father, played by Tony Danza, colorfully cussing back and forth. His sister remains silent with a phone permanently in her hands. Every time the mother speaks, she talks of a lack of grandkids and Jon’s need to meet ‘the one’.
Herein presents the movie’s key flaw, besides Jon himself, many of the other characters — including every women in the film — remain mere caricatures. The mother is a stereotypical over-protective homemaker. The sister, the apathetic teenage girl, speaks only one line at the end of the movie. Barbara works as your standard over-controlling and romantic girlfriend, with no ambition beside to bend Jon to her will.
Jon’s later love interest, Esther, is just as one-sided. Jon meets Esther, played wonderfully by Julianne Moore, as she cries outside of his night class, and the screen-chemistry between Moore and Gordon-Levitt is immediately palpable. Moore deftly weaves through the comedic and dramatic aspects of the character and she latches onto Jon with ferocity.
But despite her connection with Jon on screen, Esther is clearly included in the story to help Jon reach an emotional connection in sex with a real person. As the film develops, it’s clear Esther is used as a plot device rather than a full person. She becomes a tool to guide Jon to self-actualization through sex.
Though the story is about learning to move beyond the objectification of women, ironically the film itself continues to use the female characters to propel Jon’s journey.
What saves the film is that Jon himself is multi-dimensional, watchable and makes enough of a societal statement about porn addiction to keep the effort interesting.
Jon attends church every Sunday, trading confession for what he sees as instant atonement for his habits, somewhat redeeming the character in the audience’s eyes and keeping Jon from becoming simply a creepy porn-addicted playboy. The confessional scenes are some of the greatest in the movie and reveal the inner transformation Jon undergoes.
Overall, “Don Jon” succeeds in creating a fun, liberal take on porn addiction — a tricky enough feat in and of itself. Jon is likable and a protagonist worth watching. Though the characters are not fully fleshed-out, many viewers will nevertheless have a fun ride watching them help along Jon’s road from porn-crazed womanizer to an emotionally-developed man.
Story by Claire Hackett
Special to the Tribune