There are a lot of serious issues to confront when dealing with modern Western society, and the way that women are pervasively sexualised in advertising and on the internet is certainly one of them, so it’s to director/writer Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s credit that he tries to tackle this thorny issue in Don Jon. Unfortunately it flirts rather too much with being an earnest social problem film and as such is let down by overreaching in its final third, but these are flaws that point to Gordon-Levitt’s good intentions and I can only hope that with future films his writing will gain greater subtlety of expression.
As it is, the title character of ‘Don’ Jon (played by Gordon-Levitt), a young Italian-American man who is addicted to internet p0rnography, is put across rather programmatically. Perhaps befitting the character’s Catholic upbringing, his life is dominated by rituals — the film itself uses repeated shots to good effect, a sort of Groundhog Day-like tracking of changes via small deviations to the repetition. Jon is shown to be obsessed with his body image, with cleanliness in his home, and with keeping up his social obligations both to his family and to the Church. The self-regard he has for his own body is accompanied by a corrosively nasty attitude towards women he meets in the club, the primary place of bonding with his (male) friends, where each woman they see is rated and their bodies judged mercilessly. The point is, of course, that this attitude derives from the way women are depicted in the media, and not just p0rnography: we see Jon (and his father) paying particular attention to a heavily suggestive TV ad at his family’s dinner table, and lurid magazine covers (even ones aimed at women) show up in a supermarket aisle.
Aside from Jon’s (perhaps purposely) thin character, filled with rage and narcissism, one of the film’s chief problems for me is the treatment of his family, an hysterically overacted caricature of Italian-American family life, lacking only any implication of mafia connections. Jon’s father and mother (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) get in regular screaming matches, quietening down only for their Sunday church visit, while Jon’s sister is glued to her smartphone and doesn’t say a word for the entire film, before at length revealing herself to be rather sensitive to his (and the film’s) issues. Still, Scarlett Johansson typically does very well with her similarly underwritten part as Barbara, a potential girlfriend for Jon (he having until this point sociopathically avoided any kind of relationship commitments in favour of one-night stands and, obviously, the lure of internet p0rnography). She brings a hard edge to her stereotypical Jersey girl, and the film makes a lot of play comparing her own untenable ideas about romance (as illustrated by a hilarious parody of a romcom starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway) with Jon’s equally skewed fantasies derived from p0rn.
It’s in the last third, when Julianne Moore enters the plot as an older woman taking the same evening business course as Jon, where credibility is particularly stretched. She has experienced some trauma in her home life and is thereby able to find an emotional bond with the younger man, which she turns into a healing process for his noxious attitudes. In the film this is largely expressed through his slightly altered hairstyle and more relaxed demeanour, suggesting a neat progression into responsible adulthood for his character where the emotionally-frayed and societally-pervasive subject matter doesn’t admit of any such easy conclusions.
I certainly didn’t hate this film by any means, even if its characters pushed the bounds of stereotype. The filmmaking, for a start, is laconically unflashy with its repeated motifs and shots, and moves along at a fair clip. Meanwhile, the actors have a good time with their thinly-sketched characters. Gordon-Levitt has shown brilliant sensitivity in many of his acting roles (for example, in Inception, Looper and Mysterious Skin, amongst many others), and still at a relatively young age. If this is a calling card for his behind-the-scenes skills, then it’s a promising start, and suggests better things to come.
Director/Writer Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Cinematographer Thomas Kloss; Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 17 November 2013.