Movies Without Pity

Don Jon: Jersey Boy (and Girl)

by admin September 27, 2013 6:05 am
Don Jon: Jersey Boy (and Girl)

Before it flies off the rails in the final act, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's first self-penned, self-directed star vehicle, Don Jon, is an uncommonly provocative spin on familiar rom-com tropes, one that challenges the "love is all you need" message of so many films of this type. It doesn't hurt that, as screenwriter, Gordon-Levitt has written himself and co-star Scarlett Johansson the best roles either of them have had recently, characters that start out as broad cartoons straight out of a Saturday Night Live skit, but gradually reveal emotional layers that alters our perception of them. And behind the camera, the actor's direction is crisp and confident, establishing a fun, freewheeling rhythm from the jump that captures the audience's attention. So yeah, Don Jon is a great coming out for a new filmmaker… at least until it isn't.

The sketch comedy aspect of Don Jon is largely derived from its working class Jersey setting, with Gordon-Levitt and Johansson essentially playing variations on the exaggerated personalities seen on the now-defunct MTV Guido-sploitation series, Jersey Shore. Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a Pauly D clone, a good-natured pussy-hound with a lot of charm and muscle to make up for his lack of brains. Crammed into a series of ultra-tight outfits that make her resemble an overripe tomato and speaking in loud Joisy bray, Barbara (Johansson) is an obvious disciple of J-WOWW. These two toned and tanned townies meet-cute in one of those nightclubs that the Shore gang always frequented, spotting each other through the hordes of drunken sots grinding against each other on the neon blue-bathed dance floor. Jon's ready to make her his latest conquest then and there, but Barb isn't such an easy mark, instead making him chase her like the Channing Tatum-portrayed hero in one of those high-concept movie romances she swears by. (In fact, Tatum and Anne Hathaway make brief cameo appearances in a fake movie-within-a-movie that Barbara drags Jon to on their first date). Smitten beyond all reasonable measure, Jon willingly plays her game, following her various demands (dress better, take night classes, spend less time with the bros) with a goofy smile on his face. There's just one thing he can't let go of as easily… his porn habit.

That's right, even though his absurdly good looks can tempt virtually any living, breathing woman into his bed, Jon still finds virtual sex more satisfying that human sex. In that respect, he's like one of the subjects profiled in a widely-read 2011 New York magazine story about how the easy availability of porn in the Internet age has impacted men's attitudes towards sex -- a story that, frankly, parallels much of Don Jon's content so closely, it feels like it deserves a citation somewhere in the credits. Jon's preference for porn extends from the sense of control it awards him as he's taking care of business; with the single click of a mouse, he can jump from clip to clip in search of just the right moment to put him over the top. Contrast that to actual sex, where there's another person there with her own needs and wants. And if Jon actually regarded making love as making love, he might experience a twinge of guilt about his annoyance at having to pleasure his partner. But seeing as how sex is, to him, largely a mechanical act designed to bring about a much-needed release, having another person in the room just slows him down. Aware that Barbara wouldn't understand, much less tolerate, his porn-viewing, Jon struggles to keep it hidden… a ruse that can obviously only last for so long.

I should reiterate again at this point that Don Jon is a comedy, not a somber exploration of porn addiction. And it's a pretty funny one, with the two stars establishing a sizzling chemistry from their first scene together and a lively supporting cast (including Tony Danza as Jon's old-school Italian father, Brie Larson as his nearly-mute sister and Jeremy Luke and Rob Brown as his boisterous buddies) who flesh out the Jersey burg Jon and Barb inhabit. The greatest strength that Gordon-Levitt displays here -- and it's one that not every new director gets right their first time out -- is an ability to create a comic world that's heightened, yet still believable and populate it with people who are more than the sum of their quirks. That audiences actually find Jon likable, as opposed to a straight-up sleazebag, is a testament both to Gordon-Levitt's natural charm as an actor, but also a script that allows the characters to have messy, contradictory emotions. Likewise, Johansson's Barbara isn't just the good girl wronged; as the movie goes on, she's revealed to have her own agenda… one that, it must be said, does ultimately make her into too much of a villain for comfort.

But having created this world and these characters, Gordon-Levitt eventually loses sight of where exactly he wants to take them. The movie's downward slide begins when Julianne Moore's Esther -- a forty-something woman who sits next to Jon in night school -- goes from being a fringe presence to a driving force behind his eventual transformation from porn-happy boy to more intimacy-oriented man. I won't go into too much detail about the hows and whys of this switch, but suffice to say it traffics un-ironically in the kind of tired clichés (in this case, the cougar and the cub) that the rest of the movie tries to avoid. And when you learn the root cause of Esther's particular eccentricity, it adds a weighty load of tragedy onto the proceedings that the movie simply isn’t built to support. Suddenly, the bright, sprightly comedy we're introduced to becomes a glum, stumbling attempt at something more profound. But hey, overreaching often comes with the territory when you're a first-time filmmaker. There's still enough about Don Jon that works to suggest that Gordon-Levitt has a directorial career ahead of him if he'd like to pursue it. And having mastered the art of the set-up, maybe next time he'll get better on the follow-through.

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