On paper, “Don Jon” had everything going for it: a fertile subject matter – pornography addiction and how gender stereotypes perpetuated by mass entertainment affect heterosexual relationships, a gifted and intelligent actor in both the lead role and the director’s chair and a supporting cast that includes Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore. The major concern would be the fact that this is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first feature-length film, but even then one might be confident that he would have learned a lot from having worked with such luminaries as Christopher Nolan and Gregg Araki. What could possibly go wrong?
Just about everything as it turned out. Rarely have I seen a film with so much potential crash and burn so spectacularly and never recover. From the first voice-over that reveals Gordon-Levitt’s hammy Italian-American New Jersey accent to a predictable happy ending, “Don Jon” betrays its own purpose by wallowing in ethnic and gender stereotypes and using a PSA character arc as a substitute for a journey of genuine self-exploration.
The most immediately obvious flaw that torpedoes the film’s credibility is the way its characters are written and acted. Take Jon’s family of working-class Italian-Americans: While the mother makes pasta and pesters her son about getting a nice woman, he and his father sit at the table in front of an American football game wearing tank tops and turning every little thing into a loud thick-accented argument. All that’s missing is a black-clad grandmother clutching a rosary while speaking nothing but Italian. It’s like watching a cartoon parody of a Martin Scorsese film.
In fact, the entire film resembles little more than a substandard attempt at doing a Martin Scorsese exploration of toxic ultra-masculinity. This is especially obvious in the recurring scenes in which Jon goes to church with his family as part of his daily routine – always the same shots of the same church parts with the same camera angles framed the same way, just in case the audience might have missed its ritual nature – and, as a formality, confesses his sins of lust to his priest who repeats the same instructions of contrition. These scenes – particularly the close-up shots detailing religious iconography – are blatantly aped from Scorsese’s own feature-length debut “Who’s That Knocking At My Door”. But whereas Scorsese used such shots to express the conflict between his protagonist’s feelings and the morality he was brought up in, Gordon-Levitt merely uses them as a tautological joke whose final punchline – the priest doesn’t care about Jon’s sins any more than Jon himself did, thus the promises of comfort offered by religion are as fake as those offered by Hollywood and porn – is a foregone conclusion.
The rest of the characters fare little better. Scarlett Johansson, who has proven in films such as “Under The Skin”, “Her”, “Lost In Translation” and even Woody Allen’s overrated bore “Match Point” to be a versatile and charismatic actress, would normally prove ideal as Barbara, Jon’s idealized object of desire. Indeed, her full lips, voluptuous figure and blonde hair can sometimes make her appear as strangely unreal as some of the porn stars Jon watches, yet the humanity she brings in her best performances is indisputably real. Unfortunately, her character amounts to little else than a shallow dumb blonde caricature, not helped by Johansson’s distractingly exaggerated New Jersey accent. Her love of romantic comedies offered great potential in exploring the false expectations they incite in relationships, but it is only slightly touched upon and never truly examined, let alone deconstructed the way John Cassavetes did in his masterful “Minnie And Moskowitz”. Much like his character, Gordon-Levitt never manages to see past Barbara as a stereotype. The only difference is that Jon’s stereotypes revolve around her looks, whereas Gordon-Levitt’s revolve around the personality she displays.
As an older student in Jon’s course recovering from a personal tragedy and tasked by the plot with showing him what really meaningful sex is like, Julianne Moore is given a similarly stereotypical character, one whose sole purpose is to help Jon become a better person and hook up with him at the end. However, she is also the only actress in the entire main cast who succeeds in acting like a believable human being, so credit where credit is due. With her pale face and her world-weary, self-deprecating smile and eyes, Moore has mastered the art of portraying complicated women still smarting from the pain they have gone through, but enduring nevertheless.
It is greatly disappointing to see an actor as sensitive as Joseph Gordon-Levitt give a bad performance, even moreso when it is in a film in which he appears to have put a lot of effort and thought. His performance is a never-ending series of affectations that clog up his character like an overstuffed toilet; all struts, squints, sneers and smirks in a thick, over-the-top accent. It’s impossible to take Jon seriously as a human being when he acts like a young Steven Seagal trying to do an impression of Robert De Niro. Perhaps Gordon-Levitt intended this as a manifestation of Jon’s constant need to prove his masculinity, but it just ends up being another example of the film’s heavy-handedness, and the caricature ends up devouring the character.
The subject of sexually dysfunctional masculinity is too often treated as a joke for bad films such as “Don Jon” to be allowed to pretend to shed any real light on it. Viewers in search of a more authentic work on the matter should turn to independent filmmaker Caveh Zahedi and his devastating autobiographical docu-dramedy “I Am A Sex Addict”. Not only did Zahedi dare to examine his personal demons and expose them with brutal unflinching honesty, he used comedy in a way that enhanced the experience rather than soften it, and in doing so earned his happy ending both in the film and in real life.