‘Don Jon’ charms and goes deep

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It’s every guy’s dream — write and direct a movie about sex featuring Scarlett Johansson. And then cast yourself alongside her as the leading man.

Hollywood’s favorite charmer Joseph Gordon-Levitt has done just that. Gordon-Levitt wrote and stars in “Don Jon,” his directorial debut about two lovers coping with very opposite, but equally crippling, addictions. The film, which takes its title from the infamous Spanish womanizer Don Juan, chronicles the sexploitations of Jon Martello Jr. (Gordon-Levitt), a sleazy bartender at an eternally pulsating club full of hot, young women.

Jon is able to “pull dimes” almost every night he goes out, but after he takes these young women home, he is faced with a sensation of impending dissatisfaction. He sneaks out of bed, opens his laptop and in childlike glee spends the rest of the night watching porn.

This happens even after he beds the bodacious Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a woman whose trust he had to painstakingly earn. But Barbara has an addiction of her own — an obsession with romantic films that end with an “I do” in a wedding chapel.

Barbara’s and Jon’s contradictory values and their lack of communication illustrate what Gordon-Levitt calls the “unrealistic expectations we sometimes get from the media.”

“I’ve been working as an actor since I was young, and so I’ve always paid a lot of attention to how people react to TV and movies and all kinds of media,” Gordon-Levitt said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s always intrigued me and occasionally horrified me. Especially when it comes to love and sex and relationships, we’re all quite impacted by the stuff we see in the media.”

For a movie that seems to be all about pornography (beware the bombardment of graphic imagery), “Don Jon” also brings up some points on gender stereotypes.

“I think it’s a common thing in movies and especially in comedies with male main characters — the female characters often end up as one or the other thing: either the good girl or the bad girl, either the angel or the bitch, either the Madonna or the whore,”  Gordon-Levitt said. “And no human being is like that.”

Gordon-Levitt cited Johansson’s character as an example: “Certainly she has her shortcomings, but she also has her strengths … That’s a huge part of what makes the movie funny as well as sincere. The characters feel like human beings.”

The most human of the film’s characters is Esther (Julianne Moore), Jon’s  classmate at a community college who catches him watching porn during class. (“Are you watching people fucking on your phone?” she whispers in the middle of lecture.) Over the course of a few months, the two form an unlikely friendship as she teaches Jon a sort of experiential lesson in genuineness and honesty. Moore reigns in “Don Jon”; her unapologetic and earnest performance is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming, an insightful look into lessons of redemptive love.

Though “Don Jon” provides an earnest look into the expectations of relationships, it is impossible to ignore the masculinity and narcissism the film exudes.

“My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn,” is Jon’s daily mantra, reinforced only by the repetitive imagery of these symbols — the continuous montage of pornographic footage as the most overwhelming, to say the least.

This “me, myself and I” selfishness is something that Gordon-Levitt sees as a universality. “I think we all have the tendency to be selfish … objectify people and just sort of put people in boxes with labels on them,” he said. “We all have that tendency because it’s easy.”

Some of the most hilarious scenes of the film take place at the Catholic church Jon attends. Every Sunday, he confesses his sins — almost always masturbation and sex out of wedlock. A handful of Hail Marys from the priest, and Jon is out squeaky clean, but not before the audience finds itself questioning organized religion’s role in today’s society.

“I think that certainly lots of people have very genuine, meaningful connections to whatever faith they’re a part of,” Gordon-Levitt said. “I think there are lots of other people who are going through the motions and not really connecting with these traditions. Jon is that.”

This disconnect between lovers and among family members is a common theme throughout the movie. Jon’s one-sided relationship with almost everything in his life is pitiful and pathetic. As Gordon-Levitt put it, Jon’s car, his porn, his family and his girlfriend are all “one-way streets … just objects on a shelf.” But it is Jon’s ability to grow and develop as an individual out of his addiction and meaningless lifestyle that finds the audience rooting for him despite his machismo facade and, at times, downright disrespectful demeanor.

Tony Danza as the foul-mouthed, football-obsessed, Italian-American father and Glenne Headly as the hysterical, almost neurotic mother are reminiscent of sitcom characters but do convey the anxious, unstable household Jon grew up in. Additionally, Brie Larson as Jon’s cellphone-obsessed younger sister milks her few lines with earnestness and deep understanding. But the movie’s ability to permeate society’s pretense goes beyond stellar casting.

For a movie about pornography, “Don Jon” is surprisingly charming. It establishes our oversexualized culture as a problem without being preachy and seductively delves into the dynamic of modern relationships with wit and sophistication.