'Don Jon': Brave and Witty Look at Objectification, Intimacy

Directed by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Runtime: 90 minutes
Grade: B+

Under his indie-driven label HitRecord, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been organizing and orchestrating creative works for several years now -- music, stories, short films -- while cutting his teeth in the production realm, paving a way for endeavors in feature-length cinema. It shouldn't come as a surprise that with Don Jon, the product of several years of intermittent writing, Gordon-Levitt aims to accomplish something with purpose and passion. Similarly to 500 Days of Summer and 50/50, he attempts to deliver messages about personal growth and adaptation within the space of a substance-driven comedy, about a casanova from Jersey who can't pry away from his addiction to pornography long enough to grasp what real sex and physicality is all about. While Gordon-Levitt's outlook comes across as a little black and white about those who do and those who don't, he infuses bold humor and commentary into his debut, a polished elevated-reality look at objectification and detachment from intimacy that cleverly gets its points across.

Jon (Gordon-Levitt) thrives off repetition of the simpler, surface-level things in life: maintaining his body, cleaning his apartment, going to the club with his boys, leaving the club with random girls (like a true modern-day Don Juan), then asking for forgiveness at church for his transgressions. So, how does an attractive guy who has his choice of members of the opposite sex find himself instead preferring the release of porn, often several times a day? There are a few reasons, all of which he confronts once Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) enters his life, the "dime" he meets at the club who might be worth the prolonged courtship, dedication, and relationship-building he's always avoided. With Barbara being a controlling traditionalist who won't stand for his addiction, Jon's got to find a way to either hide his unsavory habit or ditch it all together, which becomes a problem as he further realizes that actual sex doesn't satisfy him the way that the fantasy world of porn does -- not even with what he considers to be the ideal woman.

Gordon-Levitt's direction relishes the machine-like repetition of Jon's life, fleshing out his nature as a masculine, professionally laid-back Catholic with a taste for women. Cleverly-framed shots at the club, the gym, at the dinner table at his family home (with Tony Danza and Glenne Headly as charismatic caricatures of parents), and in the church's confessional booth offer a keyhole glimpse into his almost-involuntary mentality, giving the film an infectious echo that gets broken up by Jon's sessions in front of the computer -- which, as he explains in stylized narration, are just as calculated and shallow. He's a creature of habit, a machine that appreciates the superficial and a player of the game, but the film doesn't aim to capture him in a negative light, exactly, instead presenting it as a transitional challenge from what's ingrained in his way of doing things and his personal preferences. Gordon-Levitt's awareness of aesthetics enhances his evolution with visual and sonic techniques that shake up Jon's routine, from the stereotypical rom-com facade painted over his romance with Barbara to earthier, grounded tones as his consciousness of the porn problem sets in further.

Don Jon's script handles the material in a way that makes a genre tough to pin down: it's stylized and vivacious, yet it isn't afraid of getting its hands dirty with uncomfortable themes of objectifying both men and women and unrealistic expectations from one's romantic partner. Gordon-Levitt folds in vulgar, confident jabs at humor that typically double-down on those ideas, whether Jon explicitly talks about why certain clips do it for him -- in gory detail, with accompanying footage -- or how pornography compares to the fanciful rom-coms Barbara enjoys in her spare time. Moreover, Don Jon "goes there" about raw titillation and how it can, realistically, contort a person's ideals of what physical intimacy should be; instead of just fixing on his addiction as a device, the script touches on selfishness and emotional detachment with relative complexity, enough for a film with mainstream ambitions. Out-loud laughs might not be common with its exaggerated satirical attitude, but the writing stays consistently witty.

Through a thick, exaggerated accent that accentuates his slickness and added bulk for the role, Joseph Gordon-Levitt fittingly handles the partly-charismatic, partly-asinine demeanor of a shallow but harmless alpha male on the verge of change. Don Jon focuses on what makes this guy tick, the eccentricities defining him -- his fondness for keeping clean, his need to confess his sins, his attachment to his "streak" of women -- that feed into his preference for porn-gazing, leading him through several phases across the film. From being deviously charismatic to palpably on-edge due to sexual frustration, Gordon-Levitt balances depth with moments of being likable and obstinate, enhanced as he develops a unlikely (and undesired) kinship with an older woman, Esther, organically realized by Julianne Moore. She brings a few surprises to the table that enhance the "older, wiser mentor" role she embodies, contrasting well with Scarlett Johansson's on-the-nose controlling bombshell as Barbara.

While the cinematography evolves into more authentic, verite-esque handheld movement for a desired effect, Don Jon unsurprisingly brings the story's honesty and virtue to a point, yet it does so in well-felt, casual ways that retrace and smartly subvert the character's routine. It becomes obvious that Gordon-Levitt understands that there aren't seamless answers to all of Jon's quirks if he wants to keep the impression of authenticity, which opens up an opportunity -- complete with a crafty little cameo from Brie Larson -- for the film to close on messages about self-interest and personal connections. Jon's journey is ultimately able to be bought: he doesn't have all the answers and he might not be able to right everything, but Gordon-Levitt's neatly put him on the way to figuring a lot of it out. For a debut feature film that begins with a googly-eyed cartoon and a Jersey boy essentially narrating about what get him off, it's a noteworthy accomplishment for it to end up this self-aware and candid with its purpose.

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