Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Don Jon: A Review


DON JON

I have the upmost respect for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  He is and will be seen as one of the great actors of our generation.  Therefore, I look on Don Jon, his writing and directing debut, as a hiccup, a little self-indulgent work that he had to get out of his system.  It is because I found Don Jon smug and nowhere near as clever or intelligent or insightful as it thinks it is.  Maybe its very narcissism and pseudo-intellect matches how the title character sees himself, but despite its short running time it feels much longer and after a while I frankly lost interest in whether Jon ever grew up.

Jon Martello (JGL) is a New Jersey boy who has several things he loves: his body, his pad, his ride, his church, his boys, his girl, his porn.  He works out often to maintain his physique (usually working out to the Our Fathers or Hail Marys his priest gives him as penance for his various sins), picking up women every time he goes out with his friends for one-night stands, and finding satisfaction in masturbating to all sorts of pornography.

At this juncture, how he reconciles his sexual adventures off and online to his Catholicism is never addressed, but I'm sure that even with the reforming Pope Frankie in charge, His Holiness wouldn't approve of practicing Catholics jerking off, but then I'm not Catholic, so I digress.  However, it is interesting that Jon sees no conflict between keeping the faith and getting it on.

In any case, at one night out he sees the luscious and beautiful Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a straight-up Joysey girl who turns him down the first time.  He's going to have to do with Barbara what he doesn't do: get into a relationship.  It means making big sacrifices, such as skipping the action film So Hard, So Fast in 3D for the rom-com Special Someone "not" starring Channing Tatum and "not" starring Anne Hathaway on a date.  Barbara LOVES romantic comedies/romances and can't stand porn.  As their relationship deepens, Jon can't give up the porn.

About the only person who doesn't seem to mind that Jon enjoys looking is Esther (Julianne Moore), whom Jon meets in community college in his efforts to move his life forward to impress Barbara.  Jon's parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headley) are wary and thrilled that Jon found someone to possibly settle down with (though Jon, Sr. isn't happy Barbara isn't Italian).  However, Jon's constant addiction (which is what it is) is bringing tension to his relationship. 

Eventually, he finds that porn may be a substitute for something else, and while Barbara leaves him because of it, Esther and Jon begin a relationship not quite just sex but not love. 


Stereotypes? Fuggetabouit... 

Let's start with the obvious: watching the porn clips in Don Jon made me HIGHLY uncomfortable, and I saw it alone at home (the movie, not porn).  It's a good thing I didn't go to the theater for the film, otherwise I either would have hidden my face in horror or flat-out walked out.  I know Gordon-Levitt is making the point about how much porn Jon is into, but surely there could have been another way of presenting all that without going into detail. 

A lot of Don Jon wants to have it both ways with the title character: to simultaneously have us repelled by his actions (the porn, the dehumanizing of women by giving them numerical ranking) and sympathize with him (look at his parents!  he goes to church!  maybe he doesn't know better).  I could never like him, let alone root for him because he remains a shallow, vain, witless little man.

It just seems such a cheat to say that Jon's dehumanizing of women to be mere vehicles for his personal satisfaction may come from his upbringing.  I also add here that having Gordon-Levitt go to the stereotypes of Italian-American New Jerseyans (think the worst aspects of Jersey Shore, which Gordon-Levitt insisted he hadn't heard of before he started Don Jon) is crude and insulting, not to mention remarkably easy (oh, look...the meathead Italian in muscle shirts who speak bad English and yell at each other).  Furthermore, aspects of Don Jon were hopelessly predictable (the sister, constantly texting, was at the end going to give some pearls of wisdom). 

In other aspects, while Gordon-Levitt can get good performances out of his actors, he has a love of moving the camera, and the resolution is something I don't understand: he skips the generally pleasant and smart Barbara over the more accommodating Esther, and again is the message that one can give love, actual love, to someone with whom you know you have no real future with a bit of sex thrown in?

No one around Jon appeared to do anything for him except accommodate his own narcissistic worldview, one where you pump iron to Catholic Church penance.  I don't think Gordon-Levitt aware of how Catholicism works, either that or he wanted to almost mock the Faith.

Who'd pick porn
when you've got the real thing?
As a digression, I wonder if Gordon-Levitt was trying to make a parallel between Jon's objectifying of women and Barbara's fantasies based on romantic dramas/comedies.  There isn't: the degrading of women and men by turning the sexual act into something selfish and mechanical, without any semblance of love and just something to receive sexual satisfaction for oneself and not his/her partner is radically different from someone having an idealized idea of what makes an ideal partner.  The only real moment of wit comes from the movie date scene, where anyone who has gone on a date knows that most women would push their boyfriends to watch something like The Notebook when they would rather watch something like Taken.  Perhaps if Gordon-Levitt had stuck closer to the truth, especially to Jon's serious addiction and dehumanizing of women we could have had a better film.


On the whole I found Don Jon extremely difficult watching.  I was put off by the graphic clips we saw, I was put off by Jon's shallow existence, I was put off by how Jon could toss aside the only relatively smart and confident woman he met because he couldn't put away his own obsession with porn, or how the older woman can provide both sex and wisdom without those pesky attachments Jon doesn't want.  Oh yes, the stereotypes of Italian-Americans (the boorish father, the mother who wants nothing but grandkids)...it was so unoriginal and for me, quite unpleasant.

At least ONE good thing came from Don Jon.  I finally figured out the chorus to Good Vibrations from Oscar-nominee Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg.  The words are "It's such a sweet sensation", not "It's got your sweet Texas shine", which is what I always heard.  Minus that, Don Jon is dull and full of itself...like the main character. 

DECISION: D-

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