Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Don Jon / *** (2013)

The key to a movie like this is the context. When images of vulgar objectification flash before us in an early montage showing beautiful women in compromising positions and various stages of undress, they seem tasteless and desperate – all until, that is, their primary observer clarifies their relevance in his relaxed existence. The guy’s name is Jon (referred to as the “Don” by close friends), and his life is structured like an audition for “The Jersey Shore”: there’s a thoroughly clean apartment, an obsession with going to the gym and looking good, an affinity for clubbing, hooking up with beautiful girls and never calling them again… and porn, especially porn. And while most would suppress certain obsessions in front of their friends, here is a guy who is shamelessly proud of this particular facet; it doesn’t so much own him as it intoxicates his mind with elaborate illusions that are impossible to match, even in the hands of a being so sexually charged.

There is almost an art to adult films. Their existence taps into a need in people to see what is possible behind closed doors, but voyeurs expect an act that transcends the rough and unglamorous texture that often comes with real life intercourse. Enthusiasts, furthermore, are brought to sensation not just as the sight of others getting off, but them doing so elaborately with vivid facial expressions, animalistic noise, creative sexual positions and, of course, hard bodies and faces that look perfect even at the moment of orgasm. In many ways, I admire the bravado of stars in adult films – it must be such a demanding life trying to consciously ensure everything looks perfect while you’re caught up in an act that naturally reduces you to a creature of passion. Jon is so enamored by this fantasy that there are even moments where he recalls how diminished the experience of actual intercourse is, because none of it reaches the level of intensity he has come to expect of his movies. But why should he care at all, really? Being a voyeur is a lot less pressure than being a brilliant lover, and a wastebasket of crumpled Kleenex seems to explain away all the necessary defenses.

The events of Jon’s life are simple and succinct, but augmented by circumstances that call attention to impeccable human observation. Consider his interactions with a girl he has discovered at the end of a bar named Barbra (Scarlett Johansson); whereas most women are easily persuaded into nights of ambitious sex, she is not easily won over by carnal instincts, and seems eager to let his pursuit go on for great stretches of time. That causes new frustrations, but at the same time reveals fascination. What is it about her that he finds alluring, almost addictive? While it is primarily about the chase, the payoff doesn’t result in the conventional brush-off. He genuinely likes this girl, and she projects onto him an image of storybook love learned from those all-too-familiar romance comedies playing at the multiplex (the movie invents a montage that emphasizes their clich├ęs with humorous insight). Yet when they engage in bedroom romps, her performance is judged quietly against those he has absorbed by his internet videos. Where is the gusto, he asks? The theatricality? It never quite reaches his sphere of awareness that adult film stars are acting out for the camera, feigning some of their enthusiasm. His expectations in bed, alas, are not so different than what she projects onto the actual relationship, and that sets the new couple up for certain awkwardness when the facades start falling.

The role of Jon is occupied effectively by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also directs and writes the movie in a filmmaking debut that shows surprising deliberation in its subjects. As the primary influence of his material, he creates a portrait of an Italian American man who, contrary to the stereotypes popularized by MTV shows about brainless macho men, is in fact capable of holding a thought beyond those created by his libido. Several of them, of course, occur only after certain enlightenment, such as when Jon befriends a student at a night class named Esther (Julianne Moore) and is given insight in how to overcome the fallacies of porn when it comes to having good sex (“you have to lose yourself into her, just as she has to lose herself in you”). There is also a genuine degree of care to the facets of his personal life, including family gatherings in which he banters heatedly with his father (Tony Danza) while being reminded by his loving mother that “one of these days, I’m going to sit down at this table, and you’re going to say, ‘Mom, I found her!’” Jon narrates a good portion of his story with a confidence that is refreshing, and there is a fantastic scene in which we applaud the way he justifies his apparent addiction because, well, his comparisons make sense (is it worse to be enamored with porn, he argues, or heroine?).

“Don Jon” is not a movie that uses its subjects for exploitation, either. There aren’t any overtly vulgar displays of nudity or thrusting, although the film does have fun in being suggestive (my favorite moment: Barbara lets Jon dry hump her in the hallway of her apartment building as a reward if he promises to introduce her to his parents). What surprised me, furthermore, was just how observant his screenplay is when it comes to focusing on behavioral details. There are actors in the movie who are not just reading dialogue, they are embodying people who all play an important role in the development of a character misguided in his obsessions, and they often exchange glances that are more telling than any words shared between them. None of it is seem from a frame of cynicism, either, and even when the characters are seen at the pinnacle of their patience, they don’t ham up their responses with dialogue that is excessive or overwrought. Ambitious character studies are a lost art in mainstream Hollywood, but Levitt is inspired enough to create one here that is not only entertaining, but witty, humorous, believable and yes, even sweet.

Then the movie takes a dramatic turn in its last act that I simply did not anticipate. By then, the impatience of a girlfriend who discovers his secret and the observations of a woman who knows the key to separating fantasy from reality – and being okay with it – have fully penetrated the mind of a stubborn porn addict, and he approaches the revelations without that destructive, self-indulgent pattern that is typical of macho men in mental limbo. It also doesn’t expand it to a degree that is excessive when the movie makes this discovery, ending at the 90-minute mark after spending just the right amount of time with these people, and content to let them develop their perceptions beyond the sight of the movie camera. “Don Jon” is no kind of resonating masterpiece, but it’s intelligent, thoughtful, funny, and dedicated to the cause of finding a personality and sticking with him through the excess of his addictions.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Comedy (US); 2013; Rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use; Running Time: 90 Minutes

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Jon
Scarlett Johansson: Barbara
Julianne Moore: Esther
Tony Danza: Jon Sr.
Glenne Headly: Angela
Brie Larson: Monica
Rob Brown: Bobby
Jeremy Luke: Danny

Produced by Ram Bergman, Nicolas Chartier, Jeff Franks, Bruce Wayne Gillies, Nikos Karamigios, Ryan Kavanaugh and Tucker TooleyDirected and written by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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