Yes, this is a gay-interest focused entertainment site. And yes, Don Jon is about as straight as movies get. But longtime ally Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s feature writing and directing debut is a horny hetero romance that’s smarter and edgier than the norm. Don’t they say that a rising tide lifts all boats? Well, this look at romance in the age of instant-gratification media raises the bar for frank and funny discussions of sex of any flavor.
Did I mention that Gordon-Levitt spends most of the movie having sex or masturbating? Maybe I should have led with that…
In Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt turns the camera on himself to tackle one of the world’s greatest mysteries: the libido. Lucky for us, he’s a very watchable subject. Even luckier, he’s a natural storyteller with a sure hand and a disarming sweetness in his approach. And considering I’m talking about a film that features copious clips from hardcore pornography, this sweetness is not something that should be taken for granted.
Jon (or, as his boys call him, Don Jon – as in Don Juan, groan) is a New Jersey bartender who has everything in order: he’s got his modest but well-kept bachelor pad, his car, his boys, and his sex. But when he meets a gorgeous but demanding hopeless romantic (Scarlett Johansson, turning in a killer Jersey girl performance), he also has to come to terms with his penchant for pornography.
Porn isn’t a common element in romances (except maybe for Zack & Miri Make a Porno, and we all know how that went), and there’s a reason for that: it’s not remotely romantic. Which Gordon-Levitt uses to his advantage by cutting his love scenes in with moments from pornos that seem downright horrifying by comparison. He’s digging into what attracts us to porn to begin with, and how it affects our relationships – but he wisely doesn’t dig too deep. And at the end of 90 minutes, those porno clips are not going to change contemporary romance, but they are probably going to lead to some very uncomfortable conversations between couples who check out the film thinking it’s a standard rom-com.
I applaud Gordon-Levitt for raising such a taboo topic as porn (and porn addiction) in an otherwise fairly standard romance. Not only that, he manages to make a cookie-cutter juicehead character both likeable and relatively complex. Don Jon may be a player, but he’s not a terrible person – he’s just not trying very hard to break out of the role that the world has cast him in: an Italian-American gym rat bartender with a sex drive rivaled only by his Catholic guilt. Moments like one where a downright filthy ad for Carl’s Jr. plays on the television while Jon eats dinner with his father (Tony Danza, playing a great Tony Danza), mother (Glenne Headly, on loan from 1991) and sister (Brie Larson) are offhand reminders of just how sexed-up our culture is. Why should we expect our men to grow up as anything but oversexed, impulse-driven messes?
Lucky for Don Jon, wisdom is dispensed on demand by a kooky older gal (played by a characteristically wacky and perfect Julianne Moore) that he meets at a night class. Will the combo of these two very different ladies prove enough to bump Jon out of his rut? This is still a romance, so chances are good.
Nimbly dancing around the very concept of the romance film (particularly in a cute scene involving a romance-movie-within-a-romance-movie starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway) while still delivering an entertaining watch, Don Jon could easily have been a self-important disaster or a slapdash lark. Instead, Gordon-Levitt has delivered a lively, timely, and decidedly adult look at love and sex that is both uncommonly mature for a first-time director and very fresh. The script is lean, but it chooses its battles wisely, avoiding some looming cliches or side-trips into melodrama. And Gordon-Levitt has not only a great eye (some of the scenes are extremely sexy), but also a great ear: he weaves music and rhythm into the narrative, and has a great sense of comic timing. It’s an assured, confident, solid debut.
And again with the naked and the sexy – for a movie that is in part about objectification, our director has no problem laying himself on the buffet table (though the film feels more explicit than it actually is). And more than that, he disappears beautifully into Jon’s beefy, cock-of-the-walk physicality and crinkly smiles. We have to care about this lout just enough to want him to become a better man while still being able to enjoy his being a d-bag, and for me he found a good balance. I don’t generally root for guys who would call their friend the f-word in a moment of anger, but it’s clear that Jon – an over-tanned timebomb of insecurity and conflicted emotion – wants to be a good person.
So while I’m not particularly a fan of romances (for me they fall somewhere between westerns and war movies), I thoroughly enjoyed Don Jon. Like its charismatic director and star, it has more going on than meets the eye.
Don Jon is Rated R for lots and lots of sex and sex talk, and it opens everywhere on Friday, September 27.