Review by Paul Stathakis | December 20, 2013

Blinded by porn

Jon has an addiction. It doesn’t involve alcohol or drugs but, instead, porn. Just the sound of his computer powering up is enough to excite him for he knows very well what’s available at his fingertips: a vast selection of free pornographic content on the internet. “Nothing else does it for me the same way,” explains Jon. The clips he sees on the internet seem infinitely more steamier than his real life experiences with the many attractive women he brings to his pad night after night. But Jon fails to think about why the sex in porn looks more wild. He forgets that it’s scripted, rehearsed, done in several takes, and with actors that, as a classmate of his points out, are faking it. Despite these facts, Jon can’t go a day without porn. Pleasuring himself in front of his laptop is his favourite escape. As he puts it, during those precious minutes he loses himself. Not even the woman of his dreams, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), can help him overcome this habit. Jon imagines he’ll be able to carry on living this way forever until Barbara tackles the issue head on.

Early on in “Don Jon” we meet Jon’s family. His hot-tempered father (Tony Danza) wants him to grow up. His mother (Glenne Headly) yearns for the day where her son will announce that he’s found the girl of his dreams. And then, there is Jon’s sister (Brie Larson) who sits quietly, observing the bickering at the table. She only intervenes once in the film and surprises Jon with a clever observation. Jon, to his mother’s contentment, falls for Barbara from the very moment he first lays eyes on her in a nightclub. Jon’s father is impressed not by Barbara’s amiable nature or her manners but her beauty. He immediately notices her physical traits and even dares ask Jon if her breasts are real. Danza is terrific in the few minutes he occupies in the film. He commends Jon for winning over a woman like Barbara who happens to be somewhat of a hopeless romantic. When Jon takes her to the movies, she chooses to watch a romantic comedy featuring two well-known faces who make cameo appearances.  It’s quite an amusing moment. Minutes later, we learn that Barbara also has a controlling side to her. When Jon talks about just how much he enjoys cleaning his pad, she orders him to quit talking about vacuuming and cleanliness. “Why, what’s wrong?” asks Jon. “Why?”, answers Barbara, “because it’s not sexy, that’s why.” Things get even edgier when Barbara catches Jon in the act of watching porn. She’s filled with disgust but Jon comes up with a convincing excuse that gets him off the hook. That is, until the day he forgets to clear his browser history.

“Don Jon” is a bold romantic comedy, different from the ones that we’re accustomed to seeing. It is written, directed, and produced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and offers a no holds-barred kind of experience. There isn’t an inch of filth that Levitt is willing to leave out of this picture though the film could’ve benefited from more story and less porn. The idea that Jon can’t be satisfied outside of viewing x-rated content becomes redundant and the film suffers because not as much time is invested in the characters. In fact. we learn very little about them with the exception of Julianne Moore’s character, Esther. Perhaps Levitt’s intentions were to reveal little about the characters to illustrate how disconnected and out of touch he is with the people around him. Does he truly ever take the time to get to know someone? He probably knows more about pornographic performers than he does about the women he meets. Esther is Jon’s classmate. She’s a woman hovering through different emotions for one main reason that is revealed at just the right moment. Jon hesitates to connect with her until Esther manages to grab his attention  by gifting him a pornographic film on DVD. Moore is an outstanding actress and her marvellous performance makes “Don Jon” a better film.When it’s funny, the laughs come easy. When it’s perverse in all the right ways, so do the chuckles. But a big part of this film just doesn’t belong. It interferes with the charm. Levitt’s main handicap is that he juggles with several original ideas that he just can’t seem to bridge together. It’s like watching a collection of good and not-so-good vignettes based on the notion of love. Levitt, operating under his own production company Hit Record, will certainly write, produce, and direct another film following the box office success of “Don Jon.” His next project will surely be more complete and meaningful. “Don Jon” is nothing more than a warm up for Levitt and an opportunity for him to showcase his abilities as a writer and a filmmaker.

Levitt is versatile. That he could go from playing a good-boy in “500 Days of Summer” (2009) to being a bad-boy in “Don Jon” is proof of his range as an actor. Not too many actors would want to be cast in this light but Levitt takes no shame in playing Jon. His performance mirrors the film’s tone in every way imaginable. It’s shocking, explicit, and unapologetic. On an acting level, the film works. On a dramatic one, it never takes off. The scenes that do shine through are fresh and unforgettable like the moments in the confessional booth. During one church visit, he asks his priest how he comes up with the appropriate number of Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s to rid him of his weekly sinful behaviour. This is a mere example of when “Don Jon” is at its best but such scenes are few and far between. Because the plot is neglected, with the focus accentuated more on style, we quickly lose interest in the film. “Don Jon” turns in circles for 90 minutes to simply arrive at a conclusion which feels artificial, pointless, and sappy. For a film that aims to be as real as possible, that’s just not realistic enough.