I am a huge fan of Joseph Gordon-Leavitt. He is versatile, charismatic, and talented. I thought his performance in 50/50 was the best I'd seen that year. So when I heard he wrote, directed, starred in his own film, I naturally wanted to see it. And once again, he proved to be versatile, charismatic, and talented as well has a very good director. I just wish the subject was not so repulsive.
Don Jon is the story of Jon (Gordon Leavitt), a Jersey meathead who only cares about his hedonistic life of hanging out and hooking up. But the most important thing in his life is his pornography. He never experiences ecstasy in his life through anything else other than porn. He goes to Church every Sunday with his family and weekly goes to confess these sins but goes right back out to pursue his lusts.
He can pick up any woman until Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a Jersey princess who makes Jon work for her affection. Doggedly attracted to what he can't have he puts more effort into getting Barbara than any other girl. Barbara sees Jon as a fixer upper with potential and talks him in to doing things to "improve" himself like going to night class. There Jon encounters the emotional worlogog Esther (Julianne Moore) with whom he forms a very slow and strange bond.
As a director, Gordon-Leavitt shows some real skill. He deftly uses color and lighting to make his world of night clubs and movie dates with Barbara feel glossy and movie-glamourous. There is an artificial, commercial-like quality to these parts of the movie that is sharply contrasted to his scenes with Esther. The light is harsh, the colors muted, and he uses shaky-cam effectively to jar you out of the previous day-dream and into what feels more like the real world. I particularly like the fact that they make Moore look her age and don't try to hide it under layers of make-up. The performances by everyone are also top-notch. Even Tony Danza as Jon's dad has a gritty edge to him that I've never seen before in that actor.
But the movie has two major problems:
The first is the utter vulgarity. In order to get you into Jon's mind, Gordon-Leavitt shows you a lot of pornography or he describes his horn-dog thoughts in graphic detail. I remember Judd Apatow once commented when putting porn jokes in The 40-Year-Old Virgin "There is a fine line when doing jokes about pornography where it can become pornography." Don Jon crosses that line. Rather than being simply a commentary on porn, it is pornographic. I had to spend much of the movie with my eyes turned away from the screen waiting for some scenes to be over.
The second problem is thematic. I was open-minded coming into this movie because I thought it would show the emptiness of porn-addiction. And the story does this. It even attacks our sex-saturated culture in things like TV commercials and the like. The horrid thing about porn is that it turns the person inward and they lose the inherent meaning of the sexual act which is give yourself away to another person completely in love. That is why it has the fullest expression in marriage where the husband and wife give die to themselves and give up everything else for the other.
Don Jon is a good critique of how pornography warps the soul. But the movie makes a moral equivalency to how "chick flicks" create a fantasy where a man does everything for the woman without the woman having to give in return. MILD SPOILER IN THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH Also, the film says that real joy of the sexual act can only happen when you focus on the other and have real intimacy. But when Jon finally has this experience, the film goes out of its way to show him put on a condom, which is a real barrier to intimacy. The Church has always been right that it is a sign of withholding yourself from another rather than giving. The film wants to have the intimacy without the full expression of giving life in marriage.
I also did not have a real problem with most of Church-centric scenes in the movie. Jon confesses but does not repent. Sadly this was the experience many of us have who go to the sacrament but do not change our lives. But I was hoping that in the end he would come to an understanding of how seeking forgiveness from the Lord and changing your life can lead to peace. But that never happens. In fact, in the end, the faceless priests come off as cold and ignorant. Jon can only find his salvation in the emotional catharsis of agape-less eros.
Don Jon is a movie made with great skill and speaks well about Gordon Leavitt's future. But its vulgarity of presentation and themes drag it down and saps a lot of its emotional strength.
2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars