Joseph Gordon-Levitt can never be accused of making safe choices and the Third Rock from the Sun alumni has taken on a variety of roles on the big screen that have pushed the boundaries of content, characterisation and narrative, at least in terms of what mainstream cinema typically has to offer. Following his breakout film performance as a gay hustler in Mysterious Skin – which caused a moral panic of sorts in Australia – Gordon-Levitt has fronted a high school noir (Brick), a cancer comedy (50/50) and an inverted romance narrative (500 Days of Summer), not to mention the utterly strange but strangely amusing Hesher. Of course, Gordon-Levitt has also featured in a string a high profile films such as Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper and Lincoln, the combined success of which may have played a role in enabling him to develop his latest project, Don Jon.
In addition to playing the title role, Gordon-Levitt also wrote and directed this most unusual of romantic comedies. Jon is a man obsessed with pornography to the point that – as he tells the audience via voice-over on several occasions – he believes that porn is better than real sex. In fact, Jon makes it quite clear from the outset that there are only five things that are important to him – his family, his friends, his car, his church and his porn, although he is also obsessed with maintaining his body and his apartment meticulously in a Patrick Bateman-ish kind of way. Of course, this is not to say that Jon has no interest in real sex because he has no trouble luring women into his bed with monotonous regularity, encounters that usually leave him dissatisfied and craving more time with his trusty laptop and high speed internet connection. A weekly trip to confession absolves him of all sins and the routine continues unabated until he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) during yet another night on the prowl with mates Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke)
Whilst immediately smitten, Jon finds that his confident swagger and typically successful repertoire of pick-up lines make little impression on Barbara, which only makes him more determined to win her over. A romance develops and Jon is forced to make a choice between the woman he believes he loves and his obsession with porn. Tensions inevitably develop as, despite making significant changes in his life to please her – such as enrolling in a night class at college – Jon struggles to be who Barbara wants him to be. Complicating matters is a budding friendship with grieving classmate Esther (Julianne Moore) and pressure from his parents to settle down and start a family. ‘Look at me, I look like a grandmother, but I don’t have any grandchildren yet’, decries his mother Angela (Glenne Headley) during one of their weekly family dinners.
Without giving too much away, Jon does find himself transformed by the end of the film and discovers that his preference for porn over the real deal was due to the fact that he just hadn’t had great sex, largely due to the fact that his expectations were drawn from what he was seeing on screen. In this regard, Don Jon examines the way in which porn influences the expectations of people – young men in particular – with regard to their own sexual experiences and the impact this might have on relationships. The film also makes some interesting comments about the prevalence of porn and porn culture more broadly, particularly in advertising and marketing. At one stage, Jon declares to Barbara ‘that all men watch porn’ and there is probably an element of truth in that given it is almost impossible to avoid.
As always, Gordon-Levitt is fine in the lead. In fact, once you get past the strong New Jersey accents, everybody is pretty solid in their performances, even if some of the characters themselves are somewhat overbearing. Headley’s Angela is shrill to the extreme, while Tony Danza bravely takes on the role of Jon Snr, a somewhat grotesque figure who is crude, rude and foul mouthed with never a good word for his son. The funniest moments come in the interactions between Jon and his friends, while Brie Larson is criminally underutilised as Jon’s sister Monica. As a feature directorial debut (Gordon-Levitt has previously helmed a few short films), this is a very solid effort from a guy who seems to have found a way to work successfully both in the mainstream and on the margins.