Reviewed by Ian Forbes
If there’s one actor right now that is an automatic draw for me as a critic, and as a moviegoer, it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In some ways, I feel a kinship to his remarkable career because it’s been throughout the eight-year span of my own film criticism that he’s just been churning out some of the best stuff around. For a heap of metaphorical ego-stroking, you can check out my reviews for films like Mysterious Skin, The Lookout, (500) Days of Summer, 50/50, and Looper (to name a few); all of which I would put on a top 100 list of the past decade without a second thought.
So once I heard JGL was making Don Jon, his first feature-length film, and wearing nearly every hat (writing, directing, starring, producing, etc., etc.), my inner child felt a Christmas morning-like giddiness. However, this review may not be stacked with the kind of praise I normally mete out when referencing the work of JGL, and it may ramble, but bear with me.
First off, the story is about a young man from Jersey. Jon’s got most of the traits one has come to associate with the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore: an obsession with physical perfection, hair full of product, belief that a night out at the club is merely fishing for ladies (whose beauty must meet his expectation), a cliché Italian family complete with a loudmouth father and a mom playing the martyr just waiting for one of her kids to bear her grandchildren. He isn’t too heavy on the T and L of GTL (Gym – Tan – Laundry) but makes up for it with the love of his car.
He meets a dime (that’s a 10 for those of you skewing more towards the Bo Derek era) played by Scarlett Johansson. She’s resistant at first but the type of woman who will allow her man to feel in control as long as she’s truly the one pulling the strings. Jon falls for the trap but probably could have lived with it all if it weren’t for her disdain for the one element of his life that he holds in regard above almost anything else: his love of pornography.
This is where it gets hard for me to understand who the audience for the movie truly is. For the most part, this is a broad comedy, full of stereotypes and an almost sitcom air to the comedy (though far, far raunchier). However, there’s always the undercurrent of this obsession with porn that simply feels a bit out of place; first played for laughs but later becoming something much more significant and intense.
Somewhere in the middle of the movie, we meet Esther (Julianne Moore), a woman with instantly apparent issues and an unlikely relationship forms between her and Jon. This shifts the movie into an entirely new arena and judging by the reaction of the largely college-age screening audience, I don’t think the demographic that the film is marketing itself towards is really going to get it. (They laughed at the funny bits and the dramatic ones too, seemingly without the ability to recognize the difference.)
Yes, there are plenty of comedic moments but to call this a comedy is to miss the point entirely. Gordon-Levitt has gone out on a limb here, in crafting a film about porn addiction and serving it to the mainstream. This is the stuff of art house theaters, and I mean that with all due respect. The performances all-around are quite good, with Tony Danza and Glenne Headly stealing nearly every scene they’re in, but it’s Moore that steals the show in the end. It’s not surprising to see her deliver the kind of presence she does but there were plenty of opportunities for this character to be portrayed badly and so I credit her and JGL for avoiding those particular pitfalls.
Still, I have to assign some blame to JGL for the project as a whole. Overall, I liked the movie but it’s just such a shame that a rather bold theme is undercut so viciously by the gross caricatures that inhabit the majority of the movie. Even Brie Larson (who absolutely kills it in Short Term 12 – that’s what everyone should be seeing FYI) is relegated to the role of silent sister … well mostly silent, she turns into Silent Bob uttering only one poetic and show stopping bit of dialogue towards the end. This wasn’t surprising but having been a fan of Kevin Smith films from the get-go, it again felt a bit too simple for what could have been a very different movie.
And perhaps, that’s where I’ll let the rambling come to an end. I’ve distilled my problems with JGL’s effort thusly: Don Jon is not one, but two movies. There’s the comedy about Jersey Italians. And then there’s the independent drama about a young man with a porn addiction who finds solace in an older woman with plenty of emotional baggage to bring to their shared table. Putting them together, you end up sacrificing the success of each idea. I still give JGL credit for all that he’s done here and will be first in line for whatever his next project may be. This however, just seemed to lack the decisiveness to determine what the film was going to be, and as an audience member, I felt stuck in the middle.
Don Jon opens in theaters on September 27, 2013 and is rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use.
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