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September 25, 2013
Review: Don Jon


There's a reason porn has existed for as long as humans could make pictures: people like it. Some obviously more than others, but generally porn is well-liked by mankind (and womankind. You're not fooling anyone, ladies). But there is a time and a place for watching porn, and an ordinary movie theater where kids may be watching "Despicable Me 2" in the next auditorium might not be it. This reason alone may deter some from seeing "Don Jon", which features countless clips of (semi) hardcore porn. But there is so much more to "Don Jon" than the porn; the movie is a hilarious rumination on modern love, and a forceful declaration by Joseph Gordon-Levitt that he is a director to be taken seriously.

Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) really loves porn. Even though he brings beautiful women to bed regularly from the club where he bartends, no sex ever compares to the feeling he gets from watching porn. In the first five minutes of "Don Jon" (and the first of many times throughout), Jon boots up his computer and begins scouring an adult website. He waxes poetic in a thick Italian accent about how glorious porn is, and how boring real sex is by comparison. Gordon-Levitt chooses to show us glimpses of what his character is watching; nothing too graphic, but certainly nothing you'd want to watch with your parents. Yet it doesn't feel indulgent, and it's edited in such a way that it connects us with Jon's inner monologue.

At the end of every week, Jon attends church with his quintessential Italian-New Jersey family. His father, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza), is a bit of a caricature and one-note. But as someone from an Italian family, I know he's actually pretty realistic. His mother Angela (Glenne Headly) typically harps on her son's love life, wanting him to find a nice girl to settle down with. Of course he doesn't have any nice girl to bring home; all his favorite girls live on his computer.

Things change for Jon when he spots a "dime" at the club with his lunkhead friends. He spots the gorgeous Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) at the bar and sets out to get her in bed. He's hoping that this time, she'll be the one to make sex just as good as the porn he watches. That doesn't happen, but Jon is smitten nonetheless. He watches dreadful romantic movies with her, the kind that perpetuate an unhealthy image of romance that is wholly unrealistic. The irony of porn doing the exact same thing for Jon isn't lost on Gordon-Levitt, who makes it the central theme of the film. Jon begins taking night classes to please the scheming Barbara, and ends up meeting a peculiar older woman named Esther (Julianne Moore). Esther is first seen crying in a doorway, and later introduces herself to Jon, catching him watching porn on his phone.

"Don Jon" is an often hilarious indictment of modern relationships and how media affects our perception of them. Jon's obsession with porn has left him with a decidedly one-sided view of love. When he watches porn, it's all about pleasing himself, and he treats regular sex the same way. The opposing view is presented by Barbara, who aspires to live in one of her romance movies in which the man dotes on the woman, kowtowing to her every whim. While Jon's behavior is not precisely praiseworthy (on his best week his priest only makes him say 5 Lord's Prayers and 5 Hail Mary's post-confession), it's Barbara that is really shown in a condemnable light. Her brainwashing of Jon is played up to a point where we'd rather see him go back to porn than to her. Johansson, sporting her own thick Jersey accent, fits the bill admirably. She's sexy and sultry to reel us in, and then she's cold as ice when she doesn't get what she wants.

For his first time writing and directing, Joseph Gordon-Levitt pulls no punches. He daringly dives headfirst into this sleazy character and doesn't clean him up for mainstream audiences. His eye for visual cues is impressive, frequently implementing parallel imagery to show Jon's personal progression. He uses these visual callbacks so much that it actually borders on redundancy, and might give the sense that Gordon-Levitt just wasn't creative enough to think of a new camera angle. He shows a remarkable knowledge of the craft, allowing the visual and aural nature of cinema assist him in telling his story.

Gordon-Levitt obviously understands his character really well. Flashes of pornography infringe into the picture the same way it does in Jon's mind. No matter what he's doing, it's at the periphery of his vision. He's the Alpha Male of his friends, and talks with the bravado to back it up. In both writing and performing this character, Gordon-Levitt captures all his flaws, strengths, and idiosyncrasies. As for his writing outside of Jon, he can be a bit overt. His major themes are often spoken outright within the dialogue, leaving little ambiguity to contemplate. As mentioned, Jon Sr. is a bit obvious and Danza plays him accordingly; he's loud and obnoxious, and he says what's on his mind.

"Don Jon" isn't always a smooth watch and Gordon-Levitt has some kinks to work out before he can be considered a great writer/director. Though mostly really funny, he sometimes loses control of his tone and moments become awkward and unnatural. However, it never happens long enough to derail the movie, which is wonderfully entertaining through it's 90 minute run time. One last complaint: the resolution feels very rushed and somewhat out of the blue. It's a good ending, it just didn't have enough behind it to be justified.

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Written by: Nicholas DeNitto
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