I have something of a vested interest in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon: For about three months while he was prepping the film and training up for the eponymous buff Jersey playboy, he worked out every day at the exact same time I did (around 3 PM) at Golds Gym Hollywood, perhaps to get a feeling for the testosterone-laden swagger of gym rats, despite that fact most of the members of this particular Golds are gay and Jersey Jon emphatically isn’t. Although Gordon-Levitt and I are only one Bacon degree of separation away from each other professionally, we never exchanged more than a few grunts and the occasional “You done with those thirties?” It is a testament to his admirable skills as a versatile performer that I can safely say he is nothing like the character he portrays in the film. And it is always pleasurable to see an actor actually act.
Midway during the time we worked out together I learned that what was then called Don Jon’s Addiction was about to go into production. That was probably when I decided not to start a conversation with Gordon-Levitt, despite how natural it would have been and the fact he was huffing only a bench away. It has always been something of a bemused irritant for me that every straight filmmaker I have ever known in his twenties and thirties has a Don Juan/Casanova script on his bucket list. I decided after the film’s announcement that it wasn’t just that Gordon-Levitt kept his baseball cap too self-consciously pulled down over his nose to work out properly that made him seem a bit of a douche, but also his predictability as a heterosexual filmmaker who could actually cause a pet Casanova Complex project like this to be made. After seeing the film, my opinion about him in that regard has changed, in the first instance because Don Jon meets my main criterion for a worthy narrative, literary or cinematic: It is about something, in this case how opposing expectations and desires can derail a seemingly perfect romance.
Jon is a bartender in New Jersey who has no problem scoring “better than eights” on a scale of ten with a nearly perfect batting average. The problem is the actual sex he has with those eight-pluses doesn’t live up to what he watches in the porn to which he is addicted — one of the myriad drawbacks is that women who are that good looking have no need to perform oral sex. Enter Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a “dime” Jon woos by making him do things that for him are unnatural: going out on multiple dates and meeting her family before they have sex, and generally making him behave like a character out of a romantic drama Channing Tatum might star in. The shit hits the fan when Barbara discovers him beating off to porn even after having sex with her, and Jon is pushed away to form an unlikely but likable relationship with the older Esther (Julianne Moore). Esther teaches him a lesson that is a fashionable premise in romantic dramas/comedies these days: that you must lose yourself completely in another person to truly be in love.
A satisfying irony for most Gheys watching this film is that our real-life sex equals our porn — this is probably the one area that makes being gay worthwhile. The added irony for me personally, having worked out next to Gordon-Levitt for so long, is that on my scale of one to ten he’s a three or a four — I would reject him if he came onto me in a bar or online. In fact, he is so beneath my radar that it took a few sessions at the gym for me to realize it was him (granted, that douchey cap pulled so far down over his nose didn’t help grab my attention). I mention this because the politics of objectification are such a central theme in the first half of the film that it threatens to make it boring in a one-note way. And then comes Julianne Moore to kick it back into gear, albeit in such a tacked-on way that it teeters on the unbelievable.
Wisely, Gordon-Levitt bases Jon’s persona and performance on his father in the film, played by Tony Danza, just as he riffed on Bruce Willis in Looper. Indeed, Don Jon abounds in parallels both generational and interpersonal; to that end it works solidly, if not with any refreshing insights or originality.
Much has been made about how assured and accomplished Gordon-Levitt’s writing and directing is, particularly for a first-timer, and it is much ado about something — he has clearly learned a great deal from the filmmakers with whom he has worked since childhood and is more assured and accomplished than a good eighty percent of them. Having said that, this is firmly a young person’s film, perhaps even immature in its execution and refusal to dwell too long on a particular thread of emotion lest it become too meaningful, this despite how precocious some of the script’s angles on the dynamics of romance are.
A stubborn stylistic choice Gordon-Levitt makes, which is perhaps a deliberate visual nod to parallels that run through the narrative and performances, is his use of repetition in shots and set-ups, to such an extent that it would not be unfair to say that the film is an hour-and-thirty-minute version of the trailer — it is cut and narrated exactly the same way. I’ve griped ad nauseam in my reviews about my attitude toward voice-overs carrying a film: more often than not they are lazy and unnecessary, and that is no exception in Don Jon. However, Gordon-Levitt’s narration doesn’t adversely affect this film and to a large degree does complement the fast cuts and visual repetition; it bolts them together and allows him to turbo charge the pacing to match the Mopar muscle car Jon drives furiously around his suburban world.
You can sense viscerally from her delightful, literally pneumatic performance in this film why Woody Allen loves working with Scarlett Johansson so much, except Allen is no longer young enough to appreciate or work with her in the same way as Gordon-Levitt, or not enough to write a role that is as fun to watch as being on a Jersey Shore amusement ride; the same gleefully crass objectification of Johansson by Allen would be downright creepy. Let me put it this way: Julianne Moore herself cannot follow Johansson’s act, but follow it she must, poor thing.
In reviewing another film about intergenerational relationships recently, I examined my own extensive experiences with them and found that film lacking and affected, despite its best intentions. I doff my hat to Gordon-Levitt for not only integrating such a relationship into the film but not making an issue about it — there is any hardly mention of the age difference between Jon and Esther, and when there is mention it’s not because it’s an obstacle; it is not only presented as natural but as a wholesome thing for both people in the relationship, and I couldn’t agree more.
Going back to straight male filmmakers and their pet Casanova projects, one of the reasons I find them an irritant is that I value filmmaking far beyond the blatant side benefits of it being in such alluring industry — in fact, I mostly dislike that aspect of it and wish it would go away. But the reality is many guys are in this to get laid, and therein lies the irritant: They do score far higher-grade women than they would if they were in any other business. That may be what will hobble Don Jon with many viewers: no matter how sympathetic Gordon-Levitt makes Jon, his are good-looking people’s problems, not what ninety percent of the population experiences (beyond being saturated by online porn, that is). There may be some resentment about that, particularly from younger men.
To wit, when I was leaving the movie theater, saying to myself, “Well done, Joe,” I heard a man behind me remark to his friend, “That’s two hours of my life I will never have back.”
I whipped around, ready to say, “What the fuck do you know, idiot?” But when I saw an overweight, middle-aged guy with a limp, who cannot have had in his life as many sexual partners as a guy like Jon has in a month, I could only keep my mouth shut.
Still, well done, Joe.