PORN, A BETTER LOVE STORY THAN “TWILIGHT” – “Don Jon” Seduces With Poignancy

But then, Don Jon, an artistic dramedy trifecta by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who serves as writer, star, and director), is not about porn addiction. That’s just the hook to get the viewers in the seats. What unfolds on the screen is a somewhat realistic and non-judgmental presentation of the life of Jersey boy ‘Don’ Jon Martello (Levitt) a young man who earned his moniker from his ability to bed “10s”, as he puts it. Jon is very happy with his “situation”: He loves his car, his job, his pad, his family, his friends… and his porn. In fact, He absolutely LOVES his porn as it gives him something that he can’t get from real sex no matter how many 10s he scores; and he scores a lot of them. However, things change when he encounters two women who impact his eye: Barbara Sugarman (a very fetching, glammed up Scarlett Johansson, doing her best Drea de Matteo/Adriana La Cerva impersonation), who is the film’s epitome of “10-dom”, and Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman whose ditzy demeanor is not all that it seems.

The film’s title, a play on “Don Juan”, is emblematic of the film’s indie-quirky stylistic approach Shibuya Kaho . It is in turns lofty and down to earth, quixotic yet straightforward; a combination made more explicit by Nathan Johnson’s use of music, whose score is peppered with lofty arias and strings juxtaposed with street bass-worthy fare (“Good Vibrations”, anyone?). Instead of jarring, these stylistic contrasts not only flow with, but compliment the narrative.

Acting professionally since the age of four, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has obviously learned from his experiences both in front of and behind the camera. It’s very difficult for a film both written and directed by its star to not come across as a “vanity project”, but somehow Levitt pulls it off. What is also rare is the lack of extraneous scenes. Virtually every frame in the film exists for the sole purpose of advancing the story and its themes, which range from hypocrisy to emotional isolation (and if a scene seems to go long, it is for the purpose of making a definitive point). Levitt’s film addresses how a superficial veneer can mask the longing and/or unhappiness that lies beneath. Levitt also makes the very defensible argument that mainstream (read, “acceptable”) romance media (movies, novels, etc.) are just as addictive and unrealistic as its “smutty” counterpart; extremes on either side that bring about unrealistic presentations of their subject matter and thus, arguably, engender disappointment in the “real world” (in a particularly inspired sequence, Levitt utilizes celebrity cameos to highlight the unrealistic fantasy that is the “rom com” genre).

Another powerful theme in this film is communication or, rather, the lack thereof. Characters talk a lot, but say little. Characters hear, but rarely listen (but also be mindful of the characters who don’t speak, for when they speak volumes when they finally do). As such, Don Jon also satirizes perfunctory way life is lived. Even something as deeply personal as attending confession is treated as a perfunctory matter, where the priest dolls out penance with the bored efficiency of a bank teller. Scenes of Jon’s life are virtually repeated to good effect, with Levitt’s direction altering the reiteration of each scene with a slight nuance to evidence the changes that his character undergoes, whether the character realizes it or not.

The performances are solidly real; at times brutally so. Levitt’s Jon is a matter-of-fact, self-aware individual. He knows porn fills a void but he doesn’t know what that void is. As his primary love interest, Johansson is his opposite number, a Mata Hari who gets annoyed when a strand of hair is out of place. But it is a testament to both Levitt’s direction and Johansson’s acting ability that her character is never portrayed in a wholly negative light, and their characters’ relationship plays as real.

If Johansson is the “vamp”, Julianne Moore’s Esther is the film’s “earth mother”; albeit a subtly sexy one. Her character is at turns manic and grounded, light yet filled with pathos. If Barbara is Jon’s mirror reflection, then Esther is his contrasting comparison. Moore’s Esther is beguiling even when she’s at her most innocuous. One of the standout performances comes from Tony Danza as Jon’s father, Jon Sr. Just hearing Danza curse in fuggedaboutit fashion alone is worth the price of admission, and his interactions with Levitt pop. There is an affection between that two actors that translates believably onto the scene (a probable a holdover from when the two worked together in 1994’s Angels in The Outfield). As Angela, Jon Jr.’s mother, Glenne Headly seems like the doting stereotypical Italian mother, but it’s a façade for a existential longing her character feels. Their marriage, and the family, is a microcosm for all the film’s themes. However, as in real life, this situation is not wrapped in neat little bow by the film’s end.

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