“I lose myself”

I will say this: Don Jon is not quite what I expected. While the trailers do a good job showing off the surface objectification first-time writer/directorJoseph Gordon-Levitt infuses into the comedy, it doesn’t speak to the film’s heart. Rather than simply a 90-minute romp of Jersey accents and pretty people arguing over whether porn is disgusting or not, this is a journey of discovery wherein Jon (Gordon-Levitt) evolves into a man. Yes, such a statement couldn’t sound more cliché if I tried, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less relevant to the world we’re living in. It’s fun to laugh at the muscleheads hitting the clubs, taking their pick of “dimes”, and rinsing before repeating, but it’s something completely different to watch one slowly comprehend that he knows absolutely nothing despite his infamous reputation.

The thing is, though, he doesn’t care to know. Why should he bother when the goal is to keep up his everyday routine? There is a certain dedication to his existence of working out, bartending, and hanging with the boys. He even attends church before family dinner with his parents (Glenne Headly‘s Angela and Tony Danza‘s Jon Sr.) and sister (Brie Larson‘s Monica) every single Sunday like ritual. Confession hears him admit his lecherous ways—counting his out-of-wedlock relations and self-gratification with the internet porn he cannot live without—and his penance of Hail Marys and Our Fathers keep his breathing rhythmic at the gym while also cleansing his soul to engage in his next cycle. But one girl like no other he’s ever seen changes everything with a flirtatious smile and a skintight red dress.

Meet Barbara (Scarlett Johansson)—assumedly another hot body working the scene to get laid and move on like Jon and the rest. Except that she’s not. Barbara doesn’t want a one-night stand, she wants to meet his friends and have him meet hers; eat dinner with his family and he likewise; and turn his life into one suitable for her permanent inclusion. All she says she needs in return is for him to never lie to her, but in actuality she’s looking to transform him from the inside out. Whether he complies with her ever whim for love or conquest, he’s ultimately ensnared hook, line, and sinker. He even goes as far as enrolling in a night course to prove his loyalty, but the one thing he can’t leave behind is his pornographic vice.

It’s the perfect set-up for an outlandish comedy with shouting matches at his parents offsetting the shouting matches with his girl. But that would be too easy and Gordon-Levitt has much more to say on the subject. Don Jon isn’t about porn per se, but instead a contemporary culture that has many men and women feeling disconnected to the life outside their own head. Porn becomes the why of Jon’s inability to have a meaningful relationship—the impossible fantasy of what his mind believes sex should be yet never will for him. Because no matter how perfect a woman’s breasts, butt, or mouth, no one can come close to the carnality he witnesses every time he turns on his computer. Sex has become a chore while masturbation to fake orgasms proves his only authentic release.

In this respect the film is kind of a coming-of-age tale for the thirty-something crowd—a wake-up call to the people who literally do not understand the power of love and its connective union. How could they, though, when the whole endeavor plays out like a game with revolving doors of sexuality and one-sided satisfaction? Guys like Jon and his friends Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke) know each new night means a new bedfellow and their prospective clientele understand the same. It’s not like their parents’ generation where marriage occurred young so both parties could start building the families they believed were the meaning of life. Guys like Jon don’t have any interest in those types of things; they just want the best possible girl to flaunt on their arms as a trophy.

As a result, the real story doesn’t begin until after Jon and Barbara have their big porn blowout. But while the argument on its surface concerns levels of disgust and betrayal, the real disconnect is his inability to get from her what he gets from it. When she asks how he can watch that stuff knowing he has her every night, the answer is because she isn’t what he needs. The fact she’s a demandingly psycho control freak—which Johansson pulls off perfectly in one of her best roles to date—doesn’t help matters, but the real problem is his belief that hotness and attraction are all he wants. If the groundwork of his relationships is superficiality, there’s no way he’ll ever be able to acknowledge excitement and pure desire can never be planned.

Gordon-Levitt stylistically constructs his character’s actions as fast-cut montages with visual cues of cleaning, chilling, masturbating, and confessing. He trains us aurally too as we hear the ding of his computer turning on, the electronic trash compacting of his “deposits”, and the priest’s forgiveness of his sins as though mantras of his monotonous life devoid of spontaneity. Even depictions of family become so ingrained in our heads that any deviation becomes a profound moment. Headly will excitedly scream for her baby to give her grandchildren, Danza will temperamentally lord his superiority when not yelling profanities at the TV, and Larson sits in absolute silence on her phone at the dinner table or at church. With everything so meticulously stagnant, the unpredictability of his uniquely observant classmate Esther (Julianne Moore) can’t help catching his eye.

This form of manipulation is far from subtle, but you forgive it because the film is so blatantly out for laughs. For instance, it’s no surprise when Larson finally speaks with profound wisdom after having watched everything from afar. While Gordon-Levitt goes for the joke, a more seasoned director may have let her remain mute knowing the audience implicitly understood she was the audience’s stand-in looking at and judging every misstep Jon makes. He does handle the subtle of the performances like a pro, though, expertly using Larson’s boredom, Danza’s scene-stealing temperament, and Johansson’s gum-smacking tease to achieve his desired comedy. It’s the more nuanced scenes of Brown compassionately intervening or Moore poignantly educating Jon that truly resonate as examples of Gordon-Levitt’s promise as a filmmaker, though. And he’s only going to get better.

Don Jon: 7/10

Rating: R | Runtime: 90 minutes | Release Date: September 27th, 2013 (US)
Studio: Relativity Media
Director(s): Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Writer(s): Joseph Gordon-Levitt