[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. It has been slightly modified to reflect the new title. Don Jon opens today.]
Don Jon is much like its eponymous character: not much depth but quick, confident, amusing, and oddly endearing. The entire film quickly boils down to its core concept in the span of its frenetic intro: the eponymous character is afraid of intimacy. So who’s going to tear down that emotional wall? How will he learn his lesson? How can a lothario clearly based on “The Situation” from Jersey Shore ever learn to love? Director, writer, and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt knows his character inside and out, backwards and forwards, and finds the sweet, vulnerable heart of a guy who keeps Kleenex in business.
Jon (Gordon-Levitt) has settled into a comfortable routine. He ritualizes his porn viewing, heads to the club, picks up a hot chick after making sure she’s “at least an 8”, takes her back to his place where he finds the sex disappointing because it’s not as good as porn, goes to confession to ask forgiveness, says his requisite Hail Marys and Our Fathers while working on his perfect physique, and then does it all over again. His life is disrupted when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a “10” who makes him work for the sex, pushes him to be the man she wants him to be through motivational techniques like dry humping, and he ends up falling for her even though she demands he give up his porn addiction. When Jon starts going to night school (at Barbara’s behest), he meets the non-judgmental Esther (Julianne Moore), and the two strike up a relationship unlike any other in his life.
“Don Jon” would be completely repulsive if not for Gordon-Levitt’s charisma and confident direction. When people watch Jersey Shore, they do it to feel superior to the characters. Gordon-Levitt uses the “guido” persona as a starting point, but quickly finds his character’s heart. The “porn addiction” angle instantly makes Jon both laughable and pathetic. It’s amusing to see how he idolizes the fantasy, but we also know it’s a childish barrier to any meaningful relationship. In his simple little lifestyle, Jon is never forced to grow up, and everything he thinks he needs is figuratively and literally at his fingertips. The film recognizes the addiction as meaningful but not painfully debilitating, so it gives the director room to be playful. Gordon-Levitt makes sure the audience will never hear the Mac start-up chime the same way ever again.
This playful tone is necessary for a lead character with an outsized personality. Gordon-Levitt and Johansson embrace their characters’ big Jersey-accents and obsession with the superficial. Like Gordon-Levitt, Johansson adds to depth to her character, although there’s less sympathy for the unyielding Barbara. However, the film acknowledges that these are kindred spirits in their selfishness. They’re not necessarily bad people, but they believe the world is there to serve their desires. But since this is Jon’s story, he’s the one who has to learn valuable life lessons such as there’s more to life than hitting the gym, meaningless sex, and fine-tuning the art of masturbating to Internet porn.
That lesson doesn’t seem too difficult, but Don Jon’s Addiction still seems to have difficulty teaching it since the script never finds an organic way to get Esther into the story. She’s a 180 from Barbara, but Esther always feels forced to be around Jon rather than having an natural connection to him. It’s a roundabout way to get to an easy lesson, and the film has to rush near the end to get Jon to his obvious destination. Again, Gordon-Levitt’s confident direction stops the film from going off the rails, but the plot strains trying to make Jon becomes a mature adult.
When it comes to the protagonist’s inability to achieve intimacy, Don Jon feels like Shame but with jokes and Tony Danza (who plays Jon’s father). It’s a bit of a stretch to call Jon a sex-addict or even particularly damaged. He’s simply an overgrown teenager, and right from the film’s bombastic opening, we know Jon is going to be alright. Even though the end result is never in question, Gordon-Levitt always makes sure that there’s enough levity to keep us charmed, enough drama to keep us interested, and just enough heart to make us care about a sleazy guy who should find other ways to use the Internet.