Translating an X-rated subject into an R-rated film is no easy feat, but it’s precisely what Joseph Gordon-Levitt achieved in Don Jon, his directorial debut about a porn-addicted guido-type. Written, directed, starring and in part produced by the Smith-listening, gravity-defying, Earth-spying character chameleon himself, the film is a veritable fete of Gordon-Levitt’s cinematic pursuits. But if you’re hoping to catch him with his signature puppy eyes or scrawny slouch, you may have to look elsewhere.
Sporting a Macklemore ‘do and gym-hardened biceps, Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello, a Don Juan-level womanizer whose sums up his life’s concerns in a lilting Jersey accent: “My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls and my porn." Jon’s usual clubbing rhythm is interrupted when he spots a “dime” among the sixes and sevens of the dancefloor. That dime turns out to be Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who slowly but steadily warms up to Jon’s advances.
What ensues is a witty, self-referential commentary on the unrealistic expectations created by an image-obsessed media culture. The bulk of this commentary is obviously directed at porn culture, the fixation of protagonist Jon, but romantic comedies and the NFL don’t escape unscathed either. The film sets up an intriguing parallel between Jon’s porn addiction and Barbara’s love of chick flicks, two mainstays in their bumbling relationship. After all, as Jon points out in a heated argument with Barbara, “they give awards for porn, too,” just like movies.
After Jon and Barbara start their relationship, the film plunges into a character study of their differing yet equally unrealistic expectations. Ever-hooked on pornhub.com, Jon objectifies all those around him without thinking to listen and receive. On the other hand, chick flicky Barbara is impractically demanding of others but reluctant to change herself. They’re taking separate but similarly destructive trips down Selfish Street.
Despite its host of bombastically imperfect and oft-unlikable characters, Don Jon manages to pack both chuckle-worthy moments and laugh-out-loud scenes into its 90-minute runtime. Its hilarity avoids preachy pretense, opting instead for an irreverent tone. In one of the early scenes, a montage of graphic-enough-to-get-their-message-across-without-being-rated-NC-17 clips are combined with a voiceover of Jon coolly and strategically analyzing why he finds porn more satisfying than real sex. The film subsequently handles sex and porn in the same way, relying on implications and dimmed lighting to retain an R rating. In various scenes sprinkled throughout the film, Jon is shown starting up his Mac before a porn-watching session or emptying his tissue-filled trash can after one, rather than engaged in the act itself.
Fitting for a film about sex and porn, Don Jon is structurally rhythmic. Jon loyally upholds his body-pad-ride-family-church-boys-girls-porn motto throughout the film’s exposition, and not even Barbara’s presence can shake up the routine. He cycles through his routine with little variation, going from clubbing with his two best friends to cursing at people while driving to confessing after mass to dining with his family to working out at the gym. Always in the background yet ever-dominant in his life, of course, is his porn habit. Only when the effusive and quirky character of Esther (Julianne Moore) is introduced do Jon’s priorities get reshuffled.
Her vital role in carving Jon’s character arc notwithstanding, Esther has no doubt some shadow of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in her. The film’s other characters also often come off as cartoonish. Sometimes this works, like when Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum ride off into the sunset in a movie-within-a-movie cameo or when intentionally campy music begins playing, an intentional jab at the unrealistic chick flick genre. Other times, Gordon-Levitt’s take on the Jersey guido stereotype wears thin against the contrasting personalities of Johansson or of Tony Danza, Glenne Headly and Brie Larson, who play Jon’s family.
Visually and aurally impressive given its modest budget, Don Jon argues the faults of both porn and romantic comedies while providing a bottomless supply of humor.
Nevertheless, its existence as a film means it cannot transcend itself no matter how critically it examines media culture. The closing scene is especially indicative of this. Featuring a montage of lensflares and orange-soaked sunsets over the Brooklyn Bridge, it almost resembles the very genre Don Jon mocks. Perhaps this is a reminder that despite all the shortcomings of porn and romantic comedies, there’s a reason people prefer unrealistic fantasies and happy endings.