Release Date: September 27, 2013
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Writer: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore
MPAA Rating: R
Don Jon is essentially the story of Italian New Jersey player Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) learning that women are people.
And while this would certainly be a worthwhile lesson for him to learn if he was a real person, he’s a fictional character and his journey to discover this very simple and obvious truth is unfortunately not a terribly compelling or well-told story.
Jon is obsessed with porn to the point where he prefers masturbating to it over having sex with real women. He finds real sex to be cold and unengaging, mainly because he limits his sexual encounters to one night stands with women he seduces in nightclubs.
This all changes when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a gorgeous women who breaks his streak by not sleeping with him the first time they meet. Instead, she wants to be in a meaningful relationship. And she wants to be with a guy who has his life on track and is ready to settle down. But most importantly, she hates pornography and refuses to be with someone who watches it.
So Jon finds himself at a crossroads. He loves Barbara and is willing to let go of his playboy lifestyle to be with her. But as much as he cares for her, he still finds the sex to be lacking. And he still needs porn to feel fulfilled sexually. So he’s forced to watch it in secret, defying one of her clearly-stated deal breakers.
It’s not the most original concept for a film in the world. A woman coming along and trying to get an emotionally-stunted manchild to grow up and settle down is basically the bread and butter of most Judd Apatow movies. (Replace “porn” with “action figures” and you have The 40 Year Old Virgin. Replace “porn” with “smoking pot and playing video games” and you have Knocked Up.) And we’ve certainly seen enough boisterous, hardheaded New Jersey characters on-screen to last us a lifetime.
Still, the film could have worked. However, it ultimately fails for an ironic reason. Jon’s sexual encounters are unfulfilling because he can’t see women as actual people; he only sees them as sex objects. But the film itself fails because most of the characters don’t seem like real people. Instead, they are paper thin stock characters that feel like they came off of a clichéd sitcom assembly line.
I wish I could believe that this was actually some sort of meta-decision by Gordon-Levitt, who wrote and directed the film in addition to starring in it. Making the people in the real world seem as flat and uncompelling as characters in a bad porn movie could be a stroke of genius for a film like this if done well. Unfortunately, I think he just couldn’t figure out how to flesh out his characters enough to make them feel authentic.
Barbara herself is the worst offender. She has no definable characteristics outside of her desire to fundamentally change Jon. She simply seems like an amalgam of every wet blanket girlfriend and wife you’ve seen on-screen before. As such, I never really cared much about her one way or another. It was hard to see why Jon would give up his way of life to be with her, which is obviously a huge flaw since that’s the central plot of the film.
All of the supporting characters are just as generic and clichéd. Jon has two best friends – one who is a ridiculous horndog who can’t get women and the other a more sincere and thoughtful, though terribly bland, guy. His Italian mom likes to cook and wants him to settle down. His Italian dad wears undershirts around the house, watches sports and shouts a lot. His sister just sits around and texts all the time (which is actually the biggest disappointment to me, since his sister is played by Brie Larson, who is capable of so much more than the one little scene where she actually got to speak instead of just mindlessly texting in the background – even though I enjoyed her one moment in the spotlight very much).
The only character outside of Jon who is even remotely compelling and seems fleshed out is Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman who Jon meets in a night class Barbara convinces him to sign up for. I felt invested in her character and found myself wanting to see much more of her on-screen, though its hard to know how much of the character was there on paper and how much of the nuance and intrigue was added by Moore.
Gordon-Levitt does do a good job writing and portraying Jon. It’s a bit of a departure for him, since you don’t really picture him as a machismo-dripping musclehead who refers to a woman like Barbara as a “dime piece.” I think he pulled off the character quite well. He just couldn’t flesh out the world around him enough to give him an authentic world to inhabit.
His directing is a bit hit-or-miss. I like a few of the stylistic choices he made, like using the start up sound on the computer as a signal to the audience that Jon was watching porn. And for the most part he has a pretty straightforward, meat-and-potatoes directing style, which works for the film, but he occasionally indulges in fancy faux artistic tricks, like using stop motion to move the sheets around Jon while he has a marathon porn viewing session, which I found needlessly distracting. Those moments struck me more as “Look what I can do” than of actually using tricks that enhance the story.
I feel like there was a good story somewhere inside Don Jon. Unfortunately, Gordon-Levitt is unable to uncover it. Being the writer, director and star of a film is tricky business. This seems like a case where collaborating with someone else to get another perspective and to help build a richer world would have been incredibly beneficial. Jon being stuck in a bubble where he’s the only person that matters is one thing. But when the writer-director-star can’t build a cinematic world outside of the character he’s playing, a film can’t work.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.