Having your directorial debut focus on the very taboo topic of porn is a pretty risky move. And yet this is what Joseph Gordon-Levitt decided to do. Gordon-Levitt is slowly becoming one of the biggest actors working today, having stared in multiple box-office hits like Looper, (500) Days of Summer, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises. With Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt is showing his versatility by writing and directing his first feature length film.
Gordan-Levitt stars as Jon, a modern day Don Juan who’s pleasures in life include family, friends, women he beds, and porn. Jon can get any woman, but in the end finds his pornographic fantasies more sexually fulfilling than his actual sexual encounters. It isn’t until he meets Barbara Sugarman (a perfect 10 in Jon’s eyes) that he realizes his good looks and charm won’t get him in bed with her. His only option is to commit to the long con, slowing wooing her until he can get his conquest. It isn’t long before Jon begins to fall for her as well as have his obsession with porn discovered. Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) demands that he never watch porn again, leading Jon to get his fix elsewhere- even watching the salacious videos on his phone during his night classes. It is at these classes where he encounters Esther (Julianne Moore) an older woman seeking a friend after a tragic loss. Jon struggles with his addiction to porn, while trying to maintain a lasting relationship with Barbara that is slowly unraveling.
Don Jon is one of the more interesting films to come out this year. An initial look of the film would have one believe the film deals with relationships and how porn can affect them. However, Don Jon seems to be more layered. After one watches the film, one picks up on the message that is obviously stated: relationships are two-way streets where each partner should work together to make each other happy. In a way, if one were to omit the topic of porn from the film and replace it with something less taboo like smoking weed, Don Jon would come across as just another rom-com (perhaps more like a stoner rom-com, if such a thing were to exist), except with excellent actors/actresses. Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to understand this, and instead uses his first directing gig to disguise a deeper theme hidden just underneath the seemingly obvious message of the film.
Don Jon seems to hide a thinly veiled critique of Hollywood’s view of women. This isn’t anywhere more obvious than when Jon takes Barbara to the movies to see Something Special, a fake cliche rom-com meant to remind us of the kind of schlock Hollywood is constantly trying to pass off as romantic. So spot-on are the scenes from this movie-within-a-movie that if it were packaged as a trailer and shown before Don Jon even began, no one would be none the wiser. Gordan-Levitt seems to be winking at the audience; pointing out the kind of movie he could have made had he been working for one of the big studios. More importantly is how Barbara responds to Something Special. She may not be an easy girl (much to the dismay of Jon), but perhaps this is due to the fact that she is obviously trying to fulfill her fantasy of an ideal romantic relationship based on what she sees in the movies. Later in the film, Jon goes with Barbara to a family member’s birthday party at her parent’s house where little girls in princess outfits run around, thus cementing Barbara’s upbringing as a little princess. Much like Disney’s deplorable depiction of romance along with their proud line of Princess characters, Gordon-Levitt again seems to be taking jabs at how Hollywood portrays romantic relationships along with female stereotypes that prevail these films. Even Jon’s own mother is more concerned with him settling down and having chlidren than ensuring that he is in a healthy relationship and is happy. In the end, it isn’t any of the beautiful women who can fulfill Jon’s expectations, but rather an older, more simple woman, thus upending the image of what Hollywood thinks makes a romantic relationship.
Credit should go to Joseph Gordon-Levitt who took a risk, using the topic of porn to tell a deeper story of why Hollywood has it all wrong when it comes to love. Gordon-Levitt is entertaining as ever, donning slicked back hair and utilizing his best New Jersey accent (porn is pronounced poyrn) in his portrayal of Jon. Johansson also plays up her character, slowly revealing the controlling personality that hides underneath her sexy exterior. Glenne Headly (as Angela) and Tony Danza (as Jon Sr.) are excellent as Jon’s parents- Angela being a good Catholic mother constantly at battle with Jon Jr. as well as Jon Sr. whose white tank seems right at home within the Jersey surroundings. Julianne Moore once more is in top form, whose nuanced performance brings a loneliness and longing to her broken character. However, the highlight of the film is the syncopated editing which is fast and free along with the various sound effects that together help tell an entertaining story. For a directorial debut, Don Jon is smart, funny, and a huge risk that pays off nicely. If this is a sample of what to expect from Joseph Gordan-Levitt in the future then I’m definitely on board.