A film review by Craig J. Koban October 2, 2014 

RANK: #24


2013, R, 90 mins.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Don Jon  /  Scarlett Johansson as Barbara  /  Julianne Moore as Esther  /  Brie Larson as Monica  /  Tony Danza as Jon Sr.  /  Glenne Headly as Angela  /  Rob Brown as Bobby

Written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

DON JON is an inordinately audacious and daring romcom in the sense that it manages to mock the established conventions of one of Hollywood’s oldest genres while, at the same time, tackling the dark and dreary world of obsessive addiction.  There is a love triangle in this film (sort of), but this one involves a woman, a man, and his fixation on…Internet pornography.  Very few films have the tenacity and assuredness to be frequently hysterical while honing in on the macabre nature of compulsion as well as DON JON does.  The fact that this is the feature film directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who also serves as star and writer here) is a testament to his considerable talent, both in front of and behind the camera.  

Gordon-Levitt has been an actor that I’ve admired for quite some time, but I never really prepared myself for what an accomplished and confident director that he reveals himself to be in DON JON.  This film would be pretty bold and ambitious for any director, novice or pro, especially in the sense that it tries to place the audience within the mindset of a man that struggles to form intimate and meaningful bonds with women, but finds more solace with faceless hardcore porn actresses that he joyously watches on his computer and smart phone.  It’s an utterly fascinating dynamic for a romcom, and Gordon-Levitt manages to find ways – both visually and in terms of storytelling – to evoke the daily rituals of this pathetic man and how his mornings, afternoons, and evenings all seem to revolve around getting his next online fix.  Rather hauntingly, tangible real-life relationships to him seem more artificial than the bond he feels with porn. 

The man in question is a New Jersey bartender and part-time student, Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) that spends most of his evenings on the prowl with his two best friends, trying to score as many one-night fling hook-ups as they possible can muster.  Jon’s BFFs refer to him as “Don Jon”, seeing as they have inflated his status to Godfather levels when it comes to getting women in the sack.  Jon, despite his somewhat overbearing social personality, has a considerable amount going for him: He’s a handsome and ripped specimen of a man who seems to have relatively no problems whatsoever with getting any woman to join him back at home.  Yet, Jon never feels fully satisfied with his extracurricular sextivities; even the most gorgeous and unattainable women that he conquers don’t appease his needs.  Jon finds more meaning and comfort…in masturbating to pornography. 



Why?  Through carefully placed voiceovers, Jon reveals to the audience that he prefers the sex displayed in porn to the real thing, mostly because the real thing, in his mind, is less idealized and perfect.  When doing the dead for real, Jon feels that he can’t experience true ecstasy, whereas with porn he experiences a true sensation of fully letting himself go; the only one he has to please, per se, is himself in this regard.  His life changes, though, when he meets a blonde bombshell named Barbara (the never-been-feistier and natural Scarlett Johansson), who at first flirts with Jon at the bar, only to leave him hanging, begging for more.  Jon becomes as infatuated with conquering Barbara as he is with his fixation on porn, so he makes it his new mission to woe her.  She begrudgingly allows him to take her out, and the two thusly begin an intimate relationship, during which time she teases him with the promise of sex.  When Jon and Barbara do have intercourse, he becomes oddly disappointed.  It’s still not as good as porn sex to him.  This leads to some obvious roadblocks in their relationship, especially when she discovers his secret Internet habits. 

Part of the success of DON JON is how Gordon-Levitt's screenplay crafts an endlessly compelling relationship between Jon and Barbara.  Jon is a porn addict, whereas Barbara – it’s revealed – is also kind of an addict in the sense that she worships at the alter of Hollywood romantic comedies.  There’s a sly scene in DON JON when they both attend one of those obligatory studio romance films (starring the real Anna Hathaway and Channing Tatum, playing fictitious actors within the fictitious film).  Barbara becomes absolutely smitten with the idea of a perfectly controlled relationship as portrayed in the film, so she, in turn, tries to control Jon and mould him as her idealized suitor.  This, of course, leads to obvious conflict between the pair, but then the film throws in yet another intriguing character in Esther (Julianne Moore), an older student colleague of Jon’s that is aware of his porn addiction, but does not overtly judge him for it.  The closer Jon becomes with Esther, the thornier his relationship with Barbara becomes; yet, his reliance on his addiction becomes more muted.  

Jon is given two sets of woman that possibly could get him off of his daily porn rituals, even though both Esther and Barbara have their own sets of deeply rooted personal issues that they need to deal with.  It’s the attention to character detail that makes DON JON so involving in spite of its lurid subject matter.  Gordon-Levitt also kind of masterfully displays – through careful repetition of images and scenes – the lonely monotony of Jon’s everyday routines.  When he’s not working out, spending time in bars, cleaning his apartment, or visiting his family…he’s downloading porn.  This cycle constantly repeats itself.  The film finds moments of amusement amidst the loathsome depravity of Jon’s habit by framing many scenes with him at home visiting his father (a shockingly effective and scene-stealing Tony Danza, blurting out F-bombs like it were going out of style), mother (Glenne Headly, very appealing in the Edith Bunker role), and sister (Brie Larson, who hilariously gets laughs by saying virtually nothing in the film…you’ll see why).  Even they have no idea about Jon’s deeply guarded life with pornography.  

DON JON, oddly enough, made me think considerably of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, as both seem to explore the world of deeply misogynistic men that try to form intimate ties with women despite their self-loathingly hedonistic lifestyles.  Refreshingly, DON JOM is a romcom that never holds up the genre’s troupes on a pedestal of worship; it cheerfully subverts them by framing its underlining story in the world of addiction and how that stymies one’s abilities to form genuine and meaningful ties with people.  And at the heart of it all is Gordon-Levitt, serving triple duty as director, writer, and actor…and he dives headfirst into the film’s difficult and tricky material with a brazen, throw-caution-to-the-wind gusto of an old pro.  DON JON will not appeal to everyone – that much is clear – but it never soft pedals its themes, nor does it go out of its way to placate audience’s expectations as so many countless other lazy romcoms do.  Crucially, it marks the arrival of Gordon-Levitt as a major directorial talent; it will be a sight to see what he’ll do next when he really gets his creative juices flowing. 

  H O M E