Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a man of many roles. Whether as a cold edged cop in The Dark Knight Rises, a cancer survivor in 50/50, or a deeply analytical extractor in Inception, Gordon-Levitt injects a deep sense of depth into his characters that is unprecedented. With the release of his latest film, Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt marks the latest milestone in his career, having written and directed the film in addition to playing the title character. Gordon-Levitt’s all-star cast delivers a spectacular performance that is sure to leave audiences questioning one of society’s most prevalent, but under-discussed topics.
Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) is a good old Jersey boy who loves his family, his church, and … his porn. Although he is a smooth-talking ladies’ man, his love for women takes a backseat to his insatiable desire for the world of fake sex on screen.
That all changes when Jon meets the unluckily named Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson). When Barbara catches Jon enjoying his favorite hobby, he realizes that his lifestyle is, for all intents and purposes, unsustainable. As he falls deeper into love but refuses to fall out of his porn habits, his addiction threatens to bring down his relationship with Barbara, a down-to-earth girl who likes romantic chick flicks and dreams of finding a Prince Charming.
With the exception of a barrage of porn compilations interspersed with Jon’s actual encounters with women, the movie appears to develop into a romantic comedy consistent with the tropes audiences have come to know and love from Hollywood. Gordon-Levitt intends to shatter that notion even faster than his on-screen personality can shatter his love for his right hand. Enter Esther (Julianne Moore), an eccentric student in Jon’s night class. True to form, Esther also catches Jon watching porn during class. Unlike Barbara, Esther is fascinated. Needless to say, this lays an awkward foundation for what develops into a hilarious contrast between the two women’s feelings toward pornography. This dynamic propels the movie toward a conclusion that is emotionally moving, but anticlimactic.
One of the goals in making the film, Gordon-Levitt said, was to highlight the place of pornography in society and to criticize its undeniable presence as a booming industry in America.
“I wanted to compare pornography to the rest of our media, even perfectly mainstream stuff,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to talk about, and sorta make fun of.”
It is an undoubtedly bold strategy. It is easy to imagine furious pre-production meetings between cast and crew spent discussing how best to thrust (no pun intended) the presence of pornography in the audience’s face in a way that criticizes it rather than idolizes it. This goal of the film is a success — partly due to the creepy narration from Jon that overlays most of his porn-watching scenes, and partly due to the emotions evoked by Johansson’s masterful performance as Jon’s respectable girlfriend.
Gordon-Levitt’s style as a director also makes the film’s critique of pornography effective. Through creative screenplay that builds patterns and repetitive scenes into Jon’s life, the audience is able to grasp the addicting and negative impact that Jon’s habit has on his relationships. Like a ritual, the camera captures the most mundane aspects of Jon’s week in addition to his porn addiction to create a contrast. The plot also constructs itself around this repetition — meaning that the framework for each scene is the same, with only the dialogue (and fortunately the actor’s clothes) changed.
The most telling sign of Gordon-Levitt’s proficiency as a director is his ability to engage in a subtle criticism that is foregrounded by an absurdly hilarious sequence of events. In other words, Gordon Levitt is careful not to take things too seriously in a film that could easily be appropriated as another old-fashioned and conservative tirade against porn. The film’s greatest strength is the overkill presentation of the pornography, combined with Gordon-Levitt’s creepy fascinations and narratives. Is it awkward to watch? Yes. Does Gordon-Levitt care? No.
The talent of the cast more than compensates for the at times awkward cinematography. Gordon-Levitt, Johansson and Moore are able to turn the ordinarily stock characters of a romance film into much more complex and intriguing figures. The performance of Moore is particularly remarkable for her evolution from a quirky woman in Jon’s night school class to a grieving, wise figure that ultimately gives the film its most important sense of meaning. Moore’s portrayal of Esther overcomes the film’s various hiccups, but most importantly, it makes the film worth watching.
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