Mel’s Cine-Files: Jon As in Juan
By Melissa Agar
Don Jon (Relativity Media, 2013) – Director: Joseph Gordon-Leavitt. Writer: Joseph Gordon-Leavitt. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke, & Paul Ben-Victor. Color, 90 minutes.
American pop culture is littered with stories of the adorable child star who hits the skids and plummets. Drugs are usually involved at some point. Sometimes there is redemption; sometimes there is a tragic death. The ghosts of Corey Haim, Brad Renfro, and Anissa Jones hover over the adorable moppets who steal scenes in our films and television shows. We’re left to hope that these kids dodge that fate and follow the paths of the child stars who forged even more successful careers as adults, like Ron Howard, Jodie Foster, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The latter has reached new levels of success with his newest film, Don Jon, a film in which he wrote, directed, and stars.
The adult hyphenate formerly known as Tommy Solomon on Third Rock from the Sun stars as Jon, a cocky Jersey womanizer with a penchant for internet pornography. His life is a series of one-night stands that he picks up at the bar while swigging Budweisers with his equally commitment-phobic buddies Bobby (Brown) and Danny (Luke). His only real commitment in life is with pornography, which he claims to prefer over real sex. His love affair with pornography is threatened, though, when Barbara (Johansson) sashays into life. Jon finds himself falling in love as Barbara forces him to slow things down and encourages him to pursue higher goals, like an education. When Barbara catches Jon perusing a little online nasty, she forces him to give up his vice – or at least find some alternate sources for his fix. In the meantime, he continues letting Barbara become a part of his life, bringing their friends together, bringing her home to his parents (Headly and Danza), and engaging in mundane couple activities like going to see inane romantic films starring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum, shopping at Bed Bath & Beyond; and working out together. All the while, Jon fights his need for porn and lets himself fall harder for Barbara, ignoring little signs that maybe she’s isn’t Ms. Right.
On one level, what Gordon-Levitt has given us here is a Guido rom com. Levitt’s female fans will flock to see their beloved flex his muscles (and he is impressively pumped up here as the fitness-obsessed Jon) while the film’s male-centric humor will make this an easier sell on date night than whatever romantic comedy Kate Hudson is cranking out next. All of the typical rom com tropes are here – the reluctant bachelor coming to terms with the fact that he wants something more from life, the sassy single gal, the goofy buddies, the kooky family. The difference here is that the point of view is switched to the guy’s perspective and so we’re on board with Jon as he realizes that his life is emptier than he’d like it to be. It’s just now up to him to decide if Barbara is the one worth sacrificing for and letting into his life.
What sets Don Jon apart, though, is its willingness to go to a deeper level and examine the heavier themes that lurk under the sometimes silly and titillating surface. Jon freely admits that he prefers internet porn to sex. The question he must examine is what that says about him, why artificial intimacy is more meaningful to him than actual intimacy. We can take this to a deeper level as we examine our own lives that are becoming lived more and more in cyberspace. We chat with our friends, shop, access information, and more in the security of the internet with actual human contact becoming less and less necessary in our daily existence. This isolation from intimacy is safe, convenient, but ultimately alienating and making it harder for us to build genuine relationships. It is only when Jon befriends Esther (Moore), a fellow student enrolled in his night school class, that he starts to question why he prefers to watch fake sex online and maintains distance from the women who float in and out of his bed.
Gordon-Levitt gives us a script that is hugely funny and yet finds moments of lovely tenderness, particularly in the scenes with Moore. Yes, the film has moments that are silly, but they are largely rooted in a sense of reality. Very little happens that seems out of the ordinary. The movie is also tightly paced, clocking in at 90 minutes. There are no extraneous moments, and yet the film is packed with narrative movement so that we don’t feel like we’re being rushed through it. The film ends on a tender ellipse that lacks finality in terms of the character’s journey and yet gives the audience a sense of resolution nonetheless. It is a truly fine script that could be a dark horse nominee for Best Original Screenplay as the Oscar season looms.
What likely stands in the way of Don Jon having legs as the awards season begins will largely lie in the fact that a significant “character” in the film is pornography. There are countless shots of bouncing breasts and worse, enough that the film was initially threatened with an NC-17 rating. This is not a film to take Grandma to, no matter how much she insists she likes that nice boy from Inception.
It is graphic both visually and in terms of language, although none of the images or language used in the film ever felt prurient but was always deeply rooted in character. These are guys who will throw f-bombs around and use sexist language. When you have a protagonist who rhapsodizes about the glories of pornography, you have to expect to see some nudity. It’ll be tough for Gordon-Levitt’s legions of teenage fans (I am assuming such legions exist based largely on the adoration thrown his way by my female students) to see their beloved on such graphic terms. But he should be applauded for being willing to shake up his image in such a dramatic way while still maintain a core likability that is undeniable. Even though Jon is at times a sexist jerk, he is always completely honest about who he is and what he values while clinging to the deep morality and faith that is his core. For a film that is at times an ode to pornography, it also has a deep spirituality that keeps the film grounded. Jon may be a man who brags about the number of one night stands he’s had, but he’s also a man who sits by his mother every Sunday morning at church, makes his weekly confession to his priest, and performs his Hail Marys while lifting weights and doing pull ups. There’s juxtaposition at play that continues underlining those themes about where we find our intimacy and peace.
As he evades the child star curse, Joseph Gordon-Levitt places himself with that elite crew of Hollywood stars who not only survived their childhood careers but used them as a stepping stone to even greater career heights. He proves himself a versatile actor, gifted writer, and keen director. Here’s hoping that Don Jon is the beginning of a long and successful career as a hyphenate.