Thursday, October 24, 2013

Don Jon Movie Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acting career has been loaded with good choices. He has starred in unique twists on familiar genres with director Rian Johnson, appeared in mammoth event films for Christopher Nolan, and even his populist choices like the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer or the thriller Premium Rush have been pleasant exceptions to the rule. That’s why I had high hopes (perhaps a bit too lofty) for his writing and directing debut Don Jon. It looked like another great departure from the usual romantic film bullshit and that it might really have something to say, being about a man who can’t make an intimate connection with a woman because he’s far too enamored with Internet pornography.

Yes, Don Jon is all those things. We might have been led to believe that Jon (Gordon-Levitt), in all his machismo, great body, hot ride, smooth moves, and Joisey charm (is there such a thing?) would be mellowed an tamed by Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who is, according to Jon, “the most beautiful ding I ever seen.” The trailers showed her getting upset at the discovery that he watches porn. If this were a run-of-the-mill rom-com, there would be fifteen or twenty minutes of disagreement before the obligatory happy ending resolution. But I was surprised to find that Barbara is not the dream girl Jon or we believe her to be. She’s manipulative and controlling. This starts subtly at first when she coaxes him to admitting that he really just wanted to sleep with her. Then it becomes more pronounced and sinister: she isn’t ready to have sex with him but she’ll grind on him while moaning and working him into a state of sexual ecstasy at the same time she’s getting him to agree to go to night school. Then she insists he never discuss cleaning his apartment and that he hire a cleaning lady. She just wants to mold her idea of the perfect man, which turns out to be incredibly traditional and anti-feminist, out of someone she knows she can manipulate due to his feelings.

Gordon-Levitt is on to something big here with a story of how ubiquitous images of scantily clad and nude women in pop culture devalue an entire sex and help men objectify women. The film opens with a montage of images that show the progression of these images throughout Jon’s, and by extension, Gordon-Levitt’s, life: a cartoon cuts to Phoebe Cates famously emerging from a swimming pool in a red bikini in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which eventually gives way to other images including Sisqo’s music video for “The Thong Song.” I recognized these images as seminal to my own development because Gordon-Levitt and I are contemporaries and we’ve been affected by the same things apparently.

Further than that I think there’s something very interesting happening with Internet pornography that has honestly changed the younger generations’ approach to sex. And Gordon-Levitt is bumping against an important argument even if he doesn’t ever quite make it. Twenty years ago a teenager really had to make an effort to see pornographic images and even more difficult still was acquiring videos and a place to watch them. So teens experimenting with sex were mostly figuring it out on their own. With the advent of the digital age, pornographic videos became readily available to everyone. I’d venture to say there are very few teenagers today who have never seen one, and probably multitudes who’ve seen a lot. What does that view of sex do to shape a young mind and how is that person likely to approach sex with an actual person? Possibly in much the same way the men in these videos do, which is to treat them like receptacles for their sex organs. It’s a rather putrid image, but try watching and see if I’m wrong. Pornography, at least that intended for a male audience, is not at all about love and human connection. It’s strictly about dominance and getting off.

This whole argument is buried in the subtext of Don Jon, whose protagonist is one of these guys and it’s not until he strikes up a friendship with a classmate (played by Julianne Moore) that anyone, including his guy friends, is able to express that idea to him. Moore’s character is a sad middle-aged woman still recovering from a terrible tragedy and while I do think the resolution for her and Jon is a tad too simplistic in a here’s-the-moral-of-the-story way, I was ultimately pleased that it didn’t go in the direction I’d feared.

The performances are generally outstanding. Gordon-Levitt does a fine job portraying something he absolutely is not: a macho muscle-head from New Jersey. Better still is Johansson, who has never been better than she is here. She’s got the hair and the clothes and that helps, of course, but she nails perfectly the accent, and the gestures so well you’d think she grew up in the Garden State. But these performances are not about caricature. It would be easy enough to do a send-up of the New Jersey club-going scene, but Gordon-Levitt and Johansson make them real and pull of the seemingly impossible – they make me care. Tony Danza and Glenne Headley are great as Jon’s parents, although Danza may be overselling it a little.

As much as I admire what Gordon-Levitt is attempting here I found too much of the filmmaking elements and stylistic choices a bit amateurish. He drives home the point a little too hard that Jon is stuck in a routine that needs to be broken. When he arrives at church, or the gym, or has Sunday dinner at his parents’, or cleans up after watching porn, or confesses his sins, it’s always shot the same way. He always has the same conversations. The priest always tells him to do the same thing to repent, regardless of how his sins have varied from week to week. The repetition becomes annoying after a while until you realize he’s been making a point when one day he arrives at the gym and instead of continuing to the weight room, he joins some guys to play basketball. That’s the moment that signals he’s begun to think about his life and his choices. It’s a big loud telegraph that says, “Hey audience! The protagonist has learned something and changed as a result! You see?”

All in all, Don Jon simply didn’t sell itself to me all that well. Maybe I wanted it to be smarter, or funnier, or better written, or more compelling. I just know I left feeling it was only okay. I say this in spite of the admiration I have for Gordon-Levitt’s attempt at raising some important contemporary sociological issues. I also feel confident that with more experience he may move on to make much better movies one day.

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