By Chad Berman
The “Don Juan” legend, the ultimate ladies man, has been ubiquitous in popular culture since the 1600s. Girls want him and guys want to be him. Since then, the character has been hashed and re-hashed in cinema, leading to mixed results.
“Don Jon,” the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a modern take on the classic legend, a retelling for the digital age. It is both a superb debut for Gordon-Levitt and a nice addition to his canon as an actor. His confidence in both the material and his own direction are evident in the finished product.
The story of “Don Jon” centers on bartender Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt), a contemporary Don Juan figure. He has the six-pack abs, the bronzed skin and the staccato articulation of a 21st-century guido. Luckily, Gordon-Levitt brings to Jon a witty self-awareness, which diminishes the ridiculousness of the character. Jon has the fortunate ability to, as he puts it, “pull 10s” every weekend. He is a self-centered, materialistic guy, professing to care about a short list of things in life: “My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.”
That’s right. He said porn.
Jon’s main vice in life, and, believe me, there are many, is his addiction to porn. He habitually visits pornographic websites, sometimes as often as 100 times a day. Such frequent viewing is bound to impart unrealistic sexual expectations, which is precisely what it does. Jon cannot have meaningful romantic relationships because he objectifies women based on what he sees in his pornographic videos. He craves the hyperbolic nature of pornography, a quality that he has been unable to achieve with a real woman.
That is until one night when he sees the drop-dead gorgeous Barbara Sugarman (Scarlet Johansson) at a club. Or so he thinks. He walks up to her, quietly cocky. He gives her a nod. Cut to the two grinding on the dance floor — Jon is a regular Casanova. He believes this will be like every other sloppy encounter he has had with a curvaceous woman: back to his pad, sex, then off she goes into the night, never to be seen again. However, when he tries his familiar “let’s get outta here” shtick, she rebukes his advances and catches a cab home. Unsatisfied that he was unsuccessful in his pursuit of her, he decides to actually ask her out on a date. He believes that he has finally found the woman who will live out his pornographically-charged fantasies.
Barbara and Jon begin a romantic relationship and much to Jon’s chagrin, they do not have sex for a month. In the meantime, he attends night school, because Barbara thinks he possesses more potential than simply being a bartender. There he meets the yin to Barbara’s yang, Esther, played with an alluring craziness by Julianne Moore. She is a vulnerable and damaged woman, and much older than Jon. However, they develop an unlikely bond that leads him to question his sexual expectations.
Barbara herself has unrealistic romantic expectations. She gets off to fluffy romantic comedies the same way Jon gets off to pornography. At one point, she chides Jon for cleaning his apartment, because it “isn’t sexy.” Despite her domineering nature, Jon still believes she is the woman who will live up to his skewed sexual standards. However, when they finally do have sex, it is just as unfulfilling to Jon as every other anonymous encounter he has ever had. Jon then despairs about his inability to satisfy his very specific sexual urges, before he starts to become cognizant of his flawed expectations.
Gordon-Levitt succeeds in making a film not simply about pornography. He crafts an exposé about its psychological effects and the tangible ramifications it has on a person’s life. It confronts the perils of reducing women to sexual objects, a very philosophical endeavor for a romantic comedy. Jon has dysfunctional relationships with women because he has a dysfunctional relationship with pornography. Jon has failed to understand that porn is entirely one-sided and made for his benefit whereas relationships are meant to be reciprocal.
The film is not quite as clever as it thinks it is, but it certainly reinvents the typical Hollywood romantic-comedy. It is fearless in tackling the unusual subject matter. Moore is characteristically fantastic, although her character is a bit superficially drawn. It is clear that Esther exists mainly to “fix” Jon, showing him how to love someone more than himself and his porn, which ultimately detracts from her own character.
Moreover, Johansson shines as Barbara, striking the perfect balance between trashiness and sexiness. Tony Danza, in the role he was seemingly born to play, is hysterical as the bombastic and foul-mouthed father of Gordon-Levitt’s character. This is a welcome return to comedic form for Danza, reminiscent of his days on “Taxi.” Danza’s interactions with Gordon-Levitt are some of the funniest sequences within the film, perfectly embodying the relationship between a father and son who both possess egos too big for the small space they occupy.
The Catholic confession sequences are understatedly hilarious, staged by Gordon-Levitt with a verve and unlikely ease for a first time director. He also gives a wonderful, instinctive performance as the titular character, establishing himself as the next big acting/directing threat. All of this culminates in the fact that “Don Jon,” both a reinvention and a throwback, is definitely worth the price of admission.