‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new romantic comedy Don Jon does not fit the typical mold for these movies. It is tough, gritty and, frankly, quite upfront about sexuality. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has written, directed and starred in the film, portrays a man obsessed with online pornography, finding it far more engrossing than the women he seduces. This is hardly the kind of thing that Doris Day would have dealt with in Pillow Talk a half-century ago. I mention that movie not only because it was perhaps the first really modern rom-com but because Michael Gordon, grandfather of Gordon-Levitt, directed it.
That early film had Doris Day sharing a party line (talk about change — remember when phone service was so limited that people actually shared phone lines?) with Rock Hudson, who used the phone to invite different women to his apartment where he could gently seduce them. Let’s have the obligatory “heh, heh” on that one. The new movie begins with graphic porno images and a voice-over by Jon saying in the bluntest terms possible that having real sex could never compare with porn.
Jon is a bartender, a neat freak and a religious man, who hangs out with buddies on Saturday nights and always picks up the most gorgeous women. We then see him slipping out of bed after sex, while his partners are sleeping, to watch porn.
Then he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who seems the absolutely perfect woman. She knows how to handle Jon, forcing him to change, to open up to the world. She is ambitious, and she demands he grow. She even forces him to go to a night school college class. She seems perfect; he takes her to his home and his parents instantly decide she’s wonderful. His father (Tony Danza) has the immediate hots for her, and his mother (Glenne Headly) is desperate for grandchildren. Barbara then discovers the porn addiction, but he swears he is not addicted and decides to quit. She gives him one chance. And he messes up.
He cannot stop, however, and even watches on a phone in his class. An older classmate, Esther (Julianne Moore), spots him and offers assistance. She is a bit of a mess, but realizes his problem and eventually provides the means for his deliverance.
Gordon-Levitt took a big chance doing the movie. Its bluntness can be off-putting. There is a bit too much stereotyping of Italians. I wondered if he was simply channeling Jersey Shore. But there were always surprises in store.
Gordon-Levitt performed very well in an extremely difficult role. Over the years, he has done a lot of good work portraying complex characters. It is not easy to create sympathy for someone as self-centered and obsessed as Jon. His quirks are not particularly lovable but seem real. Moore is wonderful as the older, wiser soul. She manages to be sympathetic and wise even though her character’s life has met disaster. Danza is funny, although Headly manages to dominate their scenes. Brie Larson, in a tiny role, manages to almost stop the movie with a single comment at just the right moment.
Johansson, however, nearly steals the movie as the stunning, self-centered woman who is totally focused on getting what she wants. Considering her humiliation when finding out her lover is “cheating” on her with electronic images, it is not easy to come across as being the bad one in the relationship. She is able to do it really well. Watching Gordon-Levitt’s face as he reacts to her insisting she only asks one thing of him for the 30th time (and many of them different), the audience eventually understands that she is the type of woman to be survived rather than loved.
The film — ironically, since men handle most of the dialogue and are at the center of most action — is actually feminist, or perhaps the adjective should be humanist. Jon’s problem is that he has chosen to not give anything of himself in his loving. Watching porn allows him to not return anything, to focus on whatever he wants for himself. It becomes nothing more than self-love, beyond anything sexual.
This is a fascinating film with a lot of enjoyable moments. It is definitely not for children. The language is as blunt as anything I have ever heard, it is filled with sexual experiences, and it is about a truly adult topic. But it is also a good movie.