Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut is a curious little picture – a well-intentioned porn addiction dramedy (it isn’t really a rom-com, although it’s being sold as one) that acts as an oddly salient companion piece to Steve McQueen’s Shame. And not just because they both feature women walking in on men pleasuring themselves.
Whereas McQueen’s film very much invoked the noun of its title, Don Jon is a gentler, but no less poignant, take on the issue of porn addiction and, it turns out, the broad over-sexualisation of culture in general.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Jon Martello, a confident, sexually promiscuous guy whose endless one night stands are, he openly declares, less fulfilling to him than the pleasures he gets – very regularly – from pornography. The film visualises Jon’s obsession through quick edits of porn footage (generally non-explicit) and this, embedded within the film’s structure of cycles and repetition – Jon’s life is a roundabout of surface indulgence – actually does a very convincing job of portraying an habitual mindset on screen, however light and breezy it may appear at first.
In fact, first impressions are all-important in Don Jon, both within the film itself and for the audience watching it. The structure of the film requires that we enter Jon’s life at the height of his womanising, porn-addled habits, and that, along with two obnoxious supporting characters (Jon’s friends, played by Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke) makes it a difficult film to warm to immediately. Even Gordon-Levitt himself, in what is a charismatic performance, is not a likable persona at the outset. It’s to his credit (in his capacity as director, actor and writer) that this initial impression is guided through a believable change over time.
Jon’s life is changed by the arrival of two women, both of whom help, in their own ways, to break him out of his self-destructive habits. The first is Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a gorgeous temptress who, unlike the rest of Jon’s ‘partners’, won’t simply let him take her back to his beloved flat. The second is Esther, played by the ever-reliable Julianne Moore; a mature student on an evening course Jon is attending. Moore we know is usually on top form, but Johansson’s performance is the more surprising here. Initially Barbara appears to simply be the girl of Jon’s dreams, but things get more complicated when he gets to know her better. Johansson and Gordon-Levitt share one particularly scabrous scene while shopping together that is very well played.
Because the film is a comedy, it walks a tightrope between ‘funny’ and ‘serious’, and inevitably it loses its balance from time to time. But, crucially, there is no point where it actually falls. It’s difficult to hit tonal shifts in comedy, particularly when dealing with issues concerning sex and sexual politics, and while Gordon-Levitt doesn’t hit all his targets, he does hit most; for a film that could’ve been problematic in its depiction of frankly misogynistic characters, it actually comes across as genuinely well-meaning and considered. Because of that, I was disappointed to find Jon still hanging around with his insufferable friends at the close, but hey, we can’t have everything.
Don Jon ultimately has things to say about the sexualisation of the modern world, and about the context of real relationships and real sex. The film’s tight structure and clever cycles contribute to this, in particular during one sex scene in which a condom is used – a rarity on screen that, in this context, makes a salient point.
For a directorial debut, the film has a surprisingly distinct feel about it. Gordon-Levitt as director and writer keeps things stripped down, drawing comedy out of the film’s structure, and there’s enough evidence here to suggest that he could have a good career behind the camera. Some of the tonal shifts don’t quite come off, and this makes one or two scenes play out a little more mechanically than they could have done; similarly, the film never quite gets around the problem of having fundamentally quite unlikable characters in it. But the messages of the film are stark and genuine, much more so than one might expect having seen the promotional material.