Billed as a comedy, DON JON is a film that has comedic moments, but is wrapped tightly around a young man’s “coming of age’ – no pun intended - in an era of pervasive free-flow porn on the Internet. The media’s ability to manipulate desire is at the core of this movie, whether it be the objectification of the “other,” or the equally insidious notion of repackaging one’s individuality to fit Hollywood’s “romantic” ideal.
This is an ambitious task for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his directorial debut from a script that he wrote, and a movie in which he stars as Don Jon, nicknamed by his pals for the legendary libertine Don Juan, though Jon is more of a Lothario – a self-gratifying seducer of women – than a lover. We are first introduced to this thickly, accented Jersey boy spending his nights at clubs with his buddies, arguing and rating one woman after another’s physical attributes from 1-10 or the rare “dime” which is the top-of-the-line.
Joseph Gordon Levitt gives a complex performance as Jon who exudes a real boyish charm, which contributes to his success in the bedroom, but his body language is as rigid and taut as his phallus. The drama begins when he lays eyes on the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson who is terrific as Barbara Sugarman (aptly named,) a Jersey girl with her own dreams of “love and marriage.” A culture clash of two different realities ensues – each blinded by their own illusions, caught in the bubbles of both traditional passion and self-indulgent lust.
We learn more about both Jon and Barbara in visits to their respective families. Director Gordon Levitt in a nod to Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL contrasts Barbara’s more genteel household with Jon’s clichéd working class parents, (Tony Danza and an excellent Glenne Headly) seated at a dinner of pasta, the males attired in whiter-than-white tee-shirts, engaging in strident dinner arguments interspersed with screams at the TV, as the football game is blasting in the background, and his silent sister (the wonderful Brie Larson) soaking it all in, while her eyes are glued to the ever-present smartphone.
The movie is structured in such a way that we are given vital information about Jon and his struggle with addiction to pornography through the repetition of scenes involving the Catholic Church confessional, a gym and the computer – the source of intense passion and satisfaction as evident by the accumulation of “used” tissues that are tossed into the garbage bin. Confusion and a lack of self-examination (other than the physical) contributes to Jon’s attempts to be just as gratified by a flesh and blood partner, as he is by his interactions with the Internet on x-rated sites.
The catalyst for change is the older, beautiful Esther played by Julianne Moore in a lovely performance, as a vulnerable, fragile classmate of Jon’s in the night school they are both reluctantly attending. She befriends him and DON JON, the comedy, slowly becomes a more perceptive and deeper view of what acceptance and reciprocity can be in a relationship. There is a tragic edge to this film that asks the question - How can we take off our rose-colored glasses and eventually connect and “see” one another stripped of our constraints? The answer is simple but difficult to accomplish. This movie makes an attempt though it just skims the surface.