Review: “Don Jon”

Scarlett Johansson and writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt star in "Don Jon," here reviewed by film critic James Frazier.“Don Jon” is, on the surface, about addiction. But dig a little deeper and one sees that its true subject is honesty, the first casualty of addiction. Whatever one joneses for, is there a greater effect of getting a fix than than one’s temporary escape from reality’s unforgiving glare? Here, first-time writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt explores this issue with a surprisingly moral film that approaches potentially crass subject matter with a wise understanding of its characters.

The film opens with a montage of sexualized images, not from porn, but from movies and TV shows, even featuring clips from ostensibly benign family fare. Gordon-Levitt’s making an apt point about the pervasiveness of titillating imagery in our society that goes well-beyond the cultural backroom of pornography. It’s an ambitious way to kick off his first feature, but he has much to say here, and he says it all clearly and well.

The eponymous subject is Jon, played by Gordon-Levitt, a world-class skirt-chaser whose life consists of a lot of hookup sex and exponentially more masturbation. The word “addiction” typically conjures images of drug-abusers and alcoholics, but here we’re reminded that it readily applies to a litany of behavior — in this case, porn consumption.

Jon doesn’t consider himself an addict. The film’s original title, “Don Jon’s Addiction,” spelled it out for us, though the signs are crystal clear. Jon obsesses over porn, laying out for us his viewing ceremony, keeping count so that he can accurately report the numbers during church confession. Jon scoffs at the suggestion that he enjoys porn too much, noting that it’s not like being hooked on crack, though, like most excuses, having to say this out loud to another person makes him realize just how flimsy his logic is.

Jon explains his addiction in a way that makes clear he’s a psychological mess, but also succinctly clarifies his tortured reasoning. Porn, he tells us over a montage of sex with himself and others, offers him a gateway into fantasy, one infinitely superior to reality, which is that no woman can supply him with the perfect sexual experience. “I get lost in myself,” he says, which sounds remarkably similar to something a substance abuser might say, doesn’t it?

Gordon-Levitt takes a risk onscreen as Jon, playing him with a thick Jersey accent and an Adonis physique. There are slight bumps, such as asking the audience to believe that Jon, a porn aficionado, is unfamiliar with the way a web browser’s history works, or that, for a guy with a nice lifestyle, we hear precious little about his career. But all in all, Gordon-Levitt’s distinct characterization of Jon is a gamble that pays off, with his innate likeability and humane portrayal of Jon steering the character away from creepiness and into someone sympathetic and unaware of his own deep wound.

It becomes harder for Jon to deny porn’s destructive influence in his life after meeting two women. The first is Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a gorgeous lady he picks up at the nightclub that serves as his usual fox-hunting ground. He’s smitten with her beauty, but more so with her stalwart refusal to submit to his sexual charms. With that refusal, her very presence serves as a sort of fantasy, a promise of perfect intercourse, until she relents, then reality takes over again, and porn regains its appeal.

The other is Esther (Julianne Moore), a student in a community college class that Barbara forced Jon to take. She is pretty, but substantially older, light-years away from the woman Jon normally pursues. But she recognizes a suppressed agony in Jon, one similar to her own, and through her, he is forced to grapple with harsh truths that his denial was suppressing.

“Don Jon” begins somewhat slickly, with its stylized montages and Jon’s icy voiceover, but it unfolds into a compelling drama, one that leaves the judging and vilifying to its characters, instead rendering them as complicated people with reactions rooted in their own desires and expectations.

Many filmmakers would readily treat many of the characters, such as Jon’s lovers or two best friends, as archetypes, but Gordon-Levitt and his actors defy that by coloring them as both realistic and believable. Like actual people, you can tell a lot about them by their appearance and behavior, but they retain the capacity to surprise and act in more than one way.

Gordon-Levitt, an actor of substantial talent with an even better eye for landing parts in great films, demonstrates a highly uncommon capacity for emotional and sociological complexity. There’s a wonderful scene, where at a family dinner, Jon’s father (Tony Danza) tells the story of how he first met Jon’s mother (Glenne Headly); listen to the words and watch the family’s reaction, and you’ll witness writing that’s thematically intricate and true to its characters. Movies like this are in tragically short supply; hopefully, Gordon-Levitt can make many more.