DON JON-- 4 STARS
Don Jon, the feature film debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a director and screenwriter, completes an informal and unofficial trilogy of films dealing with different forms of sex addiction. The start was 2011's NC-17 drama Shame, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender, which presented the darkly closeted, conflicted, and sometimes monstrous side of a hidden sex addict. That film had no intention of having its character turn over a new leaf. It measured just how far a guy could fall with no happy ending in sight (for which it was utterly brilliant). The second was reviewed and discussed here last week, Stuart Blumberg's dramedy Thanks For Sharing. Starring the ensemble of Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Robbins, Josh Gad, and Alicia "Pink" Moore, Thanks For Sharing was the complete opposite of Shame. That film's characters are leaving the darkness behind to become admitted addicts seeking 12-step treatment for their disease. They have a hope on the horizon.
This third film of Don Jon, represents a wide middle ground between Shame and Thanks For Sharing. It has the disillusioned and reprehensible main character to shadow Shame, but contains none of Thanks For Sharing's attempts at therapy. Don Jon sprawls through even more of the question-posing, finger-pointing, and cliche-breaking attitude than both previous films combined. With romance in its cross-hairs and obsession at its fingertips, the end result of Don Jon is a challenging and worthy playing field that addresses just how wide that gap is between romance and obsession.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote himself the challenge to portray Jon Martello, Jr., a selfish Jersey bartender who's known to his friends as "Don Jon." As the trailer will tell you, he's a compulsive man who only really cares about a few things: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. In his mind, that eighth thing on the list is his personal joy that the other seven things can't match. He considers pornography completely normal for a guy and is dead honest about it, right down to his soul.
Jon lives a cyclical existence between one-night conquests, masturbation, and an OCD-level of cleanliness and personal appearance. He still scales back and confesses it all as a good Catholic on Sundays while bonding with his family (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly are his folks and Brie Larson is his silent sister) over shouted meals. His purge to end the week is punishing himself with his assigned prayerful penance at the gym using "Hail Mary" and "Our Father" as a rep-count beats for lifting weights. Through that progression, regular sex is boring and unfulfilling compared to the unrealized fantasies he finds in pornography.
Jon doesn't find love with sex and he's perfectly OK with that, until SHE turns around one night at the club. SHE is Barbara Sugarman, played by Scarlett Johansson, a gum-chomping Jersey broad who knows she's got it. One look at her and he sees the "dime" he's always wanted. What makes her even more attractive than her banging looks is that she won't settle being a one-night stand with the likes of Jon. He tells his boys that this one is going to take the "long game." This one is going to take a real relationship to win.
In getting to know Barbara, she too has an subtle addiction, but hers is to fictional romance. She wholly believes the Hollywood romances shown in movies are the embodiment of what love should be. She thinks a man should worship and give up everything for a woman, no questions asked. When her desire for control starts to impede on that precious list of things Jon cares about, including his porn, two selfish people clash in the process.
The refreshing wrench of wisdom that shakes Don Jon from swirling downward towards two competing drains of addiction is the presence of Esther, played by Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore. Barbara has Jon jumping through hoops by agreeing to take community college classes at night to get a degree. Esther is a fellow older classmate who Jon takes momentary pity on in a moment of weakness for her. She then never goes away and gravitates to his assertive presence. However, she sees through his facade to the flaws no one else has the balls to confront Jon on. Moore's performance and her character changes the dynamic of the film entirely from being a relationship-centered exercise on romance versus obsession to something deeper.
Speaking of balls, enormous credit must be given to Joseph Gordon-Levitt to write and create this kind of illicit argument into a debut feature that has his name on it. He could have taken the easy route that some actors-turned-directors have done. Just look at Ron Howard's Night Shift, Tom Hank's That Thing You Do!, and Edward Norton's Keeping the Faith, three fun and breezy movies that only ruffle the feathers of prostitutes, rock 'n roll bands, and cute religious jokes. This is JGL going the route of Clint Eastwood's Play Misty For Me, George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and, to a lesser degree, Mel Gibson's The Man Without a Face and Zach Braff's Garden State. This is daring to be out of the box and he succeeds. He is a talented guy with a solid eye for editing and timing. I will echo the masses that see his potential for even more great things to come. If Ron Howard can go from Splash to Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, so can Levitt. He has always made shrewd choices as an actor up to this point and he will do so as a writer and director as well.
Buyer beware, Don Jon is not a date movie or a morality play. It goes to great lengths in its commentary and narrative to call out and question the stereotypes and innate fallacies to the characters' warped views of love. A great many people are going to be immediately turned off by this main character and the flippant presence of pornography as a central element of the film's subject matter. Those people are going to be selling this movie short in a big way. Don Jon is a film that is certainly not for everyone, but it makes no apologies to the provocative nature of its debates and isn't trying to glorify this kind of lifestyle in any way. That earns it a measure of well-placed respect and intrigue that is worth the debates it presents.
LESSON #1: THE COMPULSIONS THAT FUEL OVERALL ADDICTION-- The most egregious flaw of our main character is his sex addiction to pornography, but that's just one element of his personality. People prone to addiction will tell you that it's rarely just one thing. The porn is deplorable, but Jon is just as compulsive about his choices of women, his workout routine, the attention of his friends, the cleanliness of his home, and his rage on the roadways.
LESSON #2: THE SELFISHNESS CAUSED BY ADDICTION AND COMPULSION-- The pull of any addiction, whether its sex, drugs, or otherwise, creates a selfish mindset. When hooked and driven towards the trigger of addiction, few other things matter. Focus narrows to fulfilling the urge and the need, whatever it may be. When that singular focus becomes all-consuming, the connections with others don't matter and erode very quickly. Believe it or not, both Barbara and Jon make this mistake with their warped views of what they want for themselves versus what they want from others. Barbara wants to change Jon as much to her vision as much as Jon is unwilling to change his own self.
LESSON #3: LOSING YOURSELF RATHER THAN FULFILLING YOUR NEEDS-- In the end, what defeats an addiction is likely a strong enough external factor that breaks the selfishness of the needed vice. That factor does not come from within without outside pressure and influence. With Jon's sex addiction, he never "loses himself" in someone else because he and his urges were all that mattered. That's where he found fulfillment. Jon doesn't allow that list of his to be out of his preference or control. Until someone else can level with that list and matter more than those items for Jon, he's not going to evolve away from those vices. In a relationship, that unselfishness has to go both ways.