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Don Jon

D: Joseph Gordon-Levitt / 90m

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke

Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is young, brash, cocky, and with his buddies, more comfortable rating women out of ten than engaging with them on a more meaningful level.  Although Jon has a lot of one-night stands, he finds the sex unfulfilling; often, once the women he’s with are asleep, he’ll go and fire up his laptop and masturbate to online porn.  For Jon, this kind of sexual activity is more rewarding than the real thing, and it dominates his life and his attitude to relationships.

When he meets Barbara (Johansson) in a club and she rebuffs his advances, he finds himself intrigued by her, and what begins as a chase to get her to sleep with him soon becomes more serious as Jon realises he has stronger feelings for Barbara than he would have thought possible.  When Barbara agrees to go out with him, she tells Jon the only thing she asks for is complete honesty; if he lies to her their relationship will be over.  Unable or unwilling to give up online porn, it’s only a matter of time before Jon slips up.  Will their relationship survive?  Will Jon change his ways to keep Barbara in his life, or will Jon’s addiction to porn continue to hamper his emotional growth?

The answers to these questions are all answered by a film that is only notionally edgy, and wants to argue the question of men’s use of porn from the perspective of both camps: the one where it’s okay (but not in a relationship), and the one where it is completely wrong altogether.  There’s a middle ground but for the purposes of this movie, first-time writer/director Gordon-Levitt focuses on the absolute wrongs and rights of the issue.  It makes for a starker, more clear-cut approach to the material and the characters reactions to porn, but at the same time, makes anticipating the outcome a little too easy.  Jon sees porn as the answer to all those unhappy fumbles one night stands often end up becoming, where a lack of awareness of each other’s likes and dislikes can lead to disappointment all round.  Jon wants solid, satisfying sex every time; once actual people are involved, well, there’s the problem.

Don Jon - scene

As a critique of modern sexual etiquette, Don Jon takes a mainly male point of view and leaves the female perspective largely undeveloped.  While Jon – thanks to well-written and conceived voice overs – expresses his feelings, however stunted, Barbara is less accessible.  She believes in love, that much is obvious, and she relishes the type of romantic chick flick where true love conquers everything, but aside from the need for honesty she remains the deus ex machina required to bring Jon up short and get him to rethink his approach to women and sex.  And to further help him, Jon meets Esther (Moore) at night school.  She catches him watching porn on his phone, but isn’t fazed by it; instead, the next time she sees him, she brings him some porn DVDs to watch.  As their relationship begins to broaden, the audience is left to wonder if Esther will free Jon of his predilection for porn, thus allowing him to grow as a person and begin to trust in relationships.

Putting aside the issue of porn and its mass consumption by men whether in or out of a relationship, Gordon-Levitt’s main focus seems to be on the emotional distancing that can arise out of such a dependency.  When we first meet Jon he’s not actually that likeable.  He has a boyish charm, sure, but his attitude is off-putting and offensive.  He works hard, goes to the gym where he works even harder, meets his buddies at the weekend, goes to church each Sunday with his family (and where he confesses the number of sexual liaisons he’s had), and all the while treats women like accessories.  As the movie progresses, and his relationship with Barbara becomes more and more important to him, his weakness for porn proves too much.  It’s at this point that, much as the audience might not realise it, Jon becomes more sympathetic.  We’ve all been in situations where we can’t help ourselves and we do the wrong thing even though we know it’ll get us in trouble, and it’s the same for Jon.  He just can’t resist the lure of unattached, unemotional sex.  When Barbara discovers he’s been lying about porn, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy, but only because you begin to realise that, thanks to his avoiding commitment for all this time, he just doesn’t have a clue.

It’s a clever twist on Gordon-Levitt’s part and offsets the likelihood that Don Jon is going to be pro-porn all the way through.  As it is, the porn on display is unlikely to upset any but the most prurient of viewers, and the movie is far from explicit.  On an emotional level, Gordon-Levitt’s script provides the necessary number of beats to show Jon’s burgeoning awareness of the benefits of a fully committed relationship, and the performances are effective and well-judged (Danza, as Jon’s father, is a stand-out).  (Though as already noted, Johansson isn’t given a great deal to work with.)  The script is clever, laugh-out-loud funny in places, and each scene is tooled to produce the maximum effect.  As a director, Gordon-Levitt displays a confident approach to his own material, and handles the cast with supportive aplomb; he also knows when to keep the camera on a particular character, something of a lost art these days.  The movie is attractive to look at, boasts a great score courtesy of Nathan Johnson, and while it ends somewhat abruptly, certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Rating: 8/10 – uneven in places but awash with good intentions, Don Jon isn’t quite the challenging movie it might appear; it is heartfelt though, and marks Gordon-Levitt as a writer/director to watch out for.  Oh, and despite what you might believe, this is a perfect date movie.