Despite my efforts as a columnist to offer regular thoughts and suggestions on movies that I consider hidden and easily accessible gems, there’s little sense in always flat-out ignoring the films in plain sight that are also just as easily accessible. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut “Don Jon,” which he also wrote and starred in, has been one of the most highly-anticipated films of the year and is currently playing at the Claremont Laemmle.
As a warning up front, the film is very graphic in its portrayal of sex—it is, after all, about man with a porn addiction. Whether that is considered encouragement or discouragement to see the film is completely based on individual interpretation. Either way, the sex scenes are not just casually thrown in there. They, as with most everything else in the film, are included for well-considered purposes. Gordon-Levitt definitely had a clear idea of about what he wanted the movie to be. It’s a story about the transformation of the good-looking, if slightly-appalling, antihero known as Don Jon, who metamorphoses over the course of the story as he slowly learns that intimate relationships go two ways. It attacks the use of mainstream media as a means by which to hold on to one-sided fantasies—the perfect sex in porn, the perfect knight in shining armor of cheap romances—and suggests that when we try to implement them in our real lives we only end up distancing ourselves from one another.
In the beginning Jon has a consistent routine of picking up girls at the bar at which he works, watching porn after a one-night stand, keeping his apartment spic-and-span, working out at the gym, meeting his family for dinner, and yelling expletives at the car in front of him on his way to church at the end of the week. His life works based on a meaningless system of points, wherein he tallies up his sins during confession and is effortlessly absolved of them after being prescribed however many “Hail Mary”s and “Our Fathers.” His relationship with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a woman he seeks out after dubbing her a “10,” is based on a foundation of his lies about his porn addiction and her attempts to bring romance movie fantasies to life by manipulatively molding him into the perfect man.
It isn’t until he meets an older woman named Esther (Julianne Moore), who is something of an oddity, that he begins to question his regular routine and learn about real intimacy. His porn sessions begin to seem meaningless as well as less satisfying.
The silence on the priest’s end, when asked during confession how he determines the number of prayers that amount to absolution, makes the conventional system of morality seem arbitrary. The tone of the overall film shifts from caricaturized depictions of “Jersey Shore”-like characters and grand, sweeping music during 360 shots to more simple and real moments as the Don Jon persona is stripped away to reveal that Gordon-Levitt is nothing more than a Regular Joe.
The fault in the film’s overall effect, however, is that our emotional investment in and ability as viewers to make sense of the story were sometimes sacrificed by the statements Gordon-Levitt was attempting to make. Despite the predictable nature of Jon’s character arc, the film still feels somewhat unresolved in the end, and the relationship between Esther and him comes across as strained.
The focus on themes ultimately took away from the emotional level of a film supposedly about finding intimacy, and the story feels as shallow as its protagonist.
If nothing else, it’s at least fun to see the star cameos by Anne Hathaway, Channing Tatum, Emily Blunt, and John Krasinski that make it feel a bit like a home movie. It’s no perfect fantasy of a film, but as Gordon-Levitt points out, who wants that all the time anyway?