Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Writer: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore
For me, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut came as a smashing surprise. Sure, it’s about porn, but there’s more to it than just sex. It’s about modern day love and attraction. It’s about addiction. It’s about growing up and becoming a man, whatever that means.
Let me start off by saying that I don’t know why it has taken me so long to watch this movie. After recently seeing Under the Skin (review to come soon), it seemed like an interesting follow-up. It just so happens that the voluptuous and dominating Scarlett Johansson stars in both films. But more importantly, both films feature females as a luring device for men. That is not to say that a surreal, sci-fi mind-bender like Under the Skin bears any resemblance to the amped-up in-your-face realism of Don Jon.
The film is advertised in trailers as a pure entertainment piece. It promises porn, masculinity, and Jersey Shore accents. But from the film’s opening, which features stills and clips of over-sexualized women from various media sources, we know that Gordon-Levitt has a different agenda. The young director hooks his audience with graphic images, allowing us to see through Don Jon’s eyes, and keeps our attention as he reveals his satirical purpose.
Don Jon, the main character, is a slick player who treats women like inanimate objects and seems to live off testosterone alone. He lives his life in a series of rituals: everything from attending church to seeing friends and family is calculated. He owns his own life, until Barbara Sugarman (played by Scarlett Johansson) enters the picture. Temptation and sex appeal take control, and Jon finds himself doing anything that Barbara desires just to get into bed with her. Of course, it turns out that Barbara is using Jon as much as he is using her. This is not a one-sided love story. In fact, it’s not much of a love story at all.
The screenplay and camera work are kept relatively simple, which is expected for a film like this. Any sexist or crude remarks I can chalk up to extremist characters and the film’s satirical nature. The narration is straight and to-the-point. Many of the shots are filmed in flat light, with grey tones, consistent with the film’s mood. However, many of these components change when Esther (played by Julianne Moore) enters Jon’s life.
Moore’s performance is wonderful, as always, but it feels as though her character’s entrance into the storyline is too little too late. Gordon-Levitt rushes the title character’s transformation, and the result is somewhat phony and confusing. By the end of the film, it’s obvious that the actor-director has bitten off more than he can chew; his thematic ambitions outweigh the limitations of his primitive script.
As a rookie in the film production business, Gordon-Levitt deserves a free pass. After all, he created a film that was refreshingly open, raw and admittedly very engaging. He makes you listen, a feat that would earn any established director bragging rights. But unlike his arrogant main character, Joseph Gordon-Levitt would humbly accept the praise.