September 27, 2013

DON JON Has A Lot To Say About Love. Also A Lot Of Porn.

"Unlike porn, real pussy can kill you."
When it comes to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Not many child actors have been able transition into an adult career so smoothly, with most either dropping off the radar entirely or at least going through a pretty rough period involving drugs and/or alcohol.  Somehow JGL seems to have completely sidestepped these common pitfalls and established himself as a talented and artistic force who's equally comfortable in a big budget superhero film like The Dark Knight Rises or a super low-budget, virtually unseen dark comedy like Hesher.  He's got an incredibly broad appeal - to use that oft-quoted phrase, women want him and men want to be him.  The collective that he's cultivated under his hitRECord umbrella somehow feels both aimless and ambitious, sprawling and overlapping in a thousand different directions at once with no greater agenda than "making art."  It's an effort that feels like it should be pretentious or absurd, but I've been to one of his live shows and I've seen both the raw energy and the sense of community that ripples through the crowd and how the guy feeds on that connection.  I think it's been a very freeing experience for Gordon-Levitt, allowing him to explore all sorts of creative urges on his own terms and giving him a sense of confidence that's belied by his youthful appearance.

That sense of confidence is an overwhelming force throughout Don Jon, which Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed and stars in.  Nothing about this project screams "first time director" or "actor's vanity project," and it's clear that his close relationship with director Rian Johnson has really paid off tremendously.  There's a keen visual style that pervades the whole affair, with a bright color palate and a propulsive energy that gives the story a strong sense of forward momentum, which is doubly impressive considering how much screen time is devoted to watching Don go through the same cycle of repetitive daily tasks.  (Workout at the gym, clean his apartment, family dinner, church on Sunday, etc.)  The film is playful and electric and just plain fun.  And man oh man, does Gordon-Levitt understand the power of a good music cue.  It doesn't hurt that he's assembled a supporting cast that is pitch perfect in every role;  Don's got an amusing pair of friends in Rob Brown and Turtle look-a-like Jeremy Luke and his family is just as entertaining.  Brie Larson makes a great Silent Bob in the form of his little sister Monica while Tony Danza and Glenne Headley score one great laugh after another as Don's pasta-slurping, well meaning parents.  Just seeing those two working again is a treat, but each get a few shining moments that really elevate the characters above simple one-note stereotypes.  And there are a few great cameos in the various fake Hollywood films with titles like Special Someone and the hilarious So Fast, So Hard.

Scarlett Johansson gives one of her most naturally likable performances in years.  I think she's been fine as Black Widow, but something about that role has always felt forced to me, and Whedon's dialogue often seems to baffle her.  In the Marvel universe, it feels like she's doing a tough girl schtick, but here the overblown Jersey accent and privileged persona of Barbara Sugarman fit her better than one of her character's many curve-hugging velour sweatsuits.  Julianne Moore is the kind of beautiful mess that you can't help but fall in love with, providing a perfect counterbalance to Johansson.  She's wonderfully damaged, someone who been through the wringer and understands the difference between envy-inducing eye candy and a real emotional connection.  Initially I expected her character to fill the increasingly frequent role of the older, wiser "romance mentor" who has a brief encounter with the protagonist and teaches him the lessons necessary to go win back the hotter, younger girl.  But I was pleasantly surprised to see this story go in a very different direction, one that ultimately feels far more emotionally satisfying than your typical romantic comedy.

More than anything else, that's what impressed me the most about Don Jon, its ability to not only avoid the many trappings of the romantic comedy genre, but to really dig into some big ideas about the nature of relationships, the struggle of experience vs. expectations and how the unrealistic constructs of film unduly influence our sense of realistic romance.  And even more impressive, Gordon-Levitt does it all through the use of porn.  Lots and lots of porn.  And I don't mean cutesy staged Hollywood porn, I'm talking actual porn from from real websites like PornHub or RedTube.  You see, Don is addicted to watching porn to the point that he'll even get out of bed in the middle of the night and fire up his laptop while the pretty young thing he just finished fucking is asleep in the next room.  Don (and his father) is a shameless objectifier of women - Jamie practically twitched every time he referred to Barbara as "the prettiest thing [he'd] ever seen." - but his smut obsession actually runs deeper than that.  It's ritualized, no different from going to the gym or watching the game with his boys.  He knows that it's a bad habit, but treats it on the same level as swearing, something he can confess at church on Sunday, then say his Hail Marys over bench presses at the gym and get back to the business at hand.  (Nyuck nyuck.)

For Don, porn is the ideal that no sexual encounter can ever live up to.  Even when he meets Barbara and he's convinced she's everything he's ever wanted, and even when she makes him wait an interminable amount of time (for him) before having sex, it still just doesn't satisfy in the same way.  Interestingly enough, Barbara is actually in the same boat, enraptured by saccharine Hollywood romcoms that prize the drama of the chase over the day to day banality of a real relationship.  She's therefore completely ill-equipped to deal with a real flesh and blood guy who likes to clean his own house and jerk off to the internet.  He doesn't fit within her definition of a leading man despite the fact that he's smart, capable and attractive, just as none of Don's sexual partners can properly fill the stilettos of his favorite porn stars.  Now I'm a total sucker for a good romantic comedy, but I'm also the first to admit that the majority of them are lazy and terrible, full of contrived situations and characters that lack any semblance of real human behavior.  I've always felt that the best of these movies turned me into a hopeless romantic from an early age and probably made me a better boyfriend who was always willing to make a big silly gesture of love when the occasion called for it.  But I hadn't really considered the pernicious influence such films may have had on my relationship expectations.  Equating it with the sexual attitudes generated by porn might feel a bit simplistic, but I think it's actually a scarily apt comparison and one that I'm suddenly shocked isn't made more often.

Don Jon might be the perfect date movie.  As I joked while hosting trivia the other night, if you're a dude and you like porn, chances are your girlfriend or wife likes Joseph Gordon-Levitt so there's something there for everyone.  It's the kind of film that's both supremely entertaining on the surface, but also emotional and thought provoking underneath.  I guarantee that lots of you, men and women alike, will smile and laugh throughout the film and then find yourselves getting into some pretty real and serious conversations with your significant others on the car ride home.  It's virtually impossible to watch Don Jon without walking away with the desire to turn the mirror back onto your own relationship.  And hey, a little bit of healthy introspection is always a good idea and something that most of us probably don't do often enough.

Now let's see what Joseph Gordon-Levitt does next.

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Title: Don Jon
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headley, Brie Larson
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Revere Hotel Boston Common (IFFB Screening Series)