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Review: In Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Directorial Debut 'Don Jon,' Porn Addiction Is a Red Herring

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 26, 2013 at 4:46PM

"Don Jon" isn't as much about its lead character's addiction as it first appears. Despite its promising risqué premise, "Don Jon" is a relatively conservative paean to monogamous relationships.
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"Don Jon"

The delicate chord of a Macintosh computer booting up provides a recurring audio motif in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's slick directorial debut "Don Jon," in each case signifying the lead character's masturbation. It's a fitting means of conveying the experience of being slave to technology's baser powers. Jon Martello, played by Gordon-Levitt with a hyperbolic New Jersey accent and oodles of similarly over-the-top masculinist bravado, suffers from a major porn problem -- hence the movie's original title at the time of its Sundance premiere, "Don Jon's Addiction" -- and turns to the web because he finds real life sex too drab. The opening montage, in which Jon narrates an introduction to his habit set to a cross-cutting of his jerk-off sessions and less satisfactory sex with random hookups, sets the stage for a stylish dark comedy about the war between romance and lust. Yet "Don Jon" isn't as much about its lead character's addiction as it first appears. Despite its promising risqué premise, "Don Jon" is a relatively conservative paean to monogamous relationships.

While that takeaway might seem odd, it's actually the key to the old-fashioned quality that makes "Don Jon" work: It's essentially a romantic comedy in which Jon's sexual fixations provide little more than a MacGuffin to establish his romantic dysfunction. By idealizing intimacy, he's unable to find true love. At first focused on wooing the ostensible girl of his dreams whom he meets at a bar, similarly brazen Jersey girl Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), Jon faces a series of disconcerting wakeup calls when Barbara turns out to be characteristically unexciting in the sack and, upon discovering his internet issues, walks out on him. Salvation gradually arrives when he meets older grad school classmate Esther (Julianne Moore) and forms a more legitimate bond forged in their mutual frustrations with the mundanities and letdowns of day to day existence. "Don Jon," which includes many sex scenes but no graphic imagery, mainly focuses on dramas of this sort. By its end, the porn issue is little more than a red herring, but it's certainly a potent one.

There's a legitimate poignancy to Jon and Esther's scenes together that eventually takes the movie away from its brash, cartoony vibes, which are especially grating during broadly comic scenes between Jon and his family: This loudmouthed Italian brood includes Jon's coarse, giddy pop, played Tony Danza with suave grin and eyebrows that practically hug the ceiling; Glenne Headly is similarly loony in her constant fretting over her son's uneven romantic life. When Jon brings Barbara home to meet his folks, their eagerness over the prospects of their son landing an attractive girl with attitude to spare borders on the incestuous -- they want him to have them. This scene and others like it have a vignette-like simplicity to their humor that only works if you look at them as the chains of Jon's past holding him back from exploring other options. Even so, it's a blunt point: Porn isn't just his addiction; it's his escape.

That's enough of an enticing concept to make his eventual salvation with Moore's character something of an inevitability, even as it smartens up the plot with a more believable character. By the time Esther enters the picture, Jon seems like he's on the verge of giving himself over completely to his vices, not unlike Michael Fassbender's bleak meltdown in Steve McQueen's "Shame." But this isn't that kind of movie. Esther represents a constructive outlet for Jon's anger -- an older single woman willing to screw just for the hell of it who doesn't find his porn habit all that gross -- and their increasingly tender bond injects a bonafide emotional dimension to a movie that otherwise cuts surface deep.

"I am in her," Jon says at one point about his latest flame, and while the statement has multiple ramifications, it's a chiefly figurative assertion. Unlike the world of pleasures indicated by the Mac tune played at the start, romantic sex provides Jon with the connection he can't find in the online world. But if the conclusion is heartfelt, it's also relatively basic means of providing a springboard for Gordon-Levitt to flex his directing chops and play around with a couple of clichés. Well made as it is, "Don Jon" suffers from a half-baked scenario that never manages to make its characters as intriguing as the problems that afflict its protagonist. It's a movie that shows better than it tells, even as it leaves much up to the imagination.

Criticwire grade: B-

HOW WILL IT PLAY?  Relativity Media releases "Don Jon" nationwide this Friday. Decent reviews and interest in the cast should help it receive solid box office returns over the weekend, though its long-term prospects are limited in this crowded fall season. Its awards campaign also faces slim chances, though it could manage some attention for Johannsen in the Best Supporting Actress category.


This article is related to: Reviews, Romantic Comedy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Don Jon, Relativity Media