Don Jon (2013)
Directed by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Premise: A young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is addicted to pornography finds that his actual adventures with women are less satisfying than the videos he watches online.
What Works: Over the last decade, mainstream Hollywood films have all but done away with depictions of sexuality. From thrillers to dramas, sexuality has been purged from the movies, with comedies the only remaining genre to tackle the subject, and usually only in the shallowest and most adolescent way. Given that context, Don Jon is a notable movie and, at least for its first two thirds, it is unlike most anything else in recent release. The story of Don Jon is essentially an addict narrative and it does that formula well. The challenge for filmmakers of addiction stories is to find ways to create empathy with the addict and depict abnormal behavior in a way that is understandable and relevant to audiences. The filmmakers of Don Jon accomplish that and this film tells a story about one man’s obsession and then presents it in away that links his addiction to everyday experiences. Don Jon constantly creates parallels between the hardcore video clips that the title character watches and other media in the background of the film such as sexually alluring commercials and magazine covers and the romantic comedies that Don Jon’s girlfriend loves to watch. The not-so-subtle point here is the disconnect between media and reality, the way the consumption of media creates and reinforces expectations, and how those expectations impact human relationships. Somewhat more subtly, this film is also about life in a consumer culture, as Don Jon obsesses over his apartment, his car, and women, treating everyone and everything like disposable possessions. Don Jon is the first film directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is also credited as the writer and the lead actor and this is an impressive debut. The film moves along briskly, interweaving comedy and drama, and the script has a lot of wit. This is also an especially well edited film with images repeated in a way that conveys the sense of being trapped in a cycle without the movie itself getting tedious. But the characteristics of Don Jon that stand out the most are its boldness and honesty. This is a film in which the main character is addicted to pornography and the filmmakers do not try to soften their subject; they recognize where the bulk of the audience is on this issue and for the most part the picture treats the viewer with respect instead of pretending to ignorance or prudery.
What Doesn’t: Don Jon comes in the wake of the films of Judd Apatow and his protégés and although this film was made by different people, the influence of Apatow’s clique is certainly felt here in both positive and negative ways. To its benefit, Don Jon has the earnestness and honesty that characterizes the better films of the Judd Apatow brand but it also has the same fundamentally conservative resolution to its conflict, in which the characters retreat to a traditional notion of family and relationships. This comes across as a copout and it is one of many problematic choices made in the ending of the film. As a story about addiction, the filmmakers of Don Jon commit a lot of time and effort to establish the power of the title character’s compulsion but after doing that he is able to give it up way too easily and without any personal cost. The ending also makes the mistake of introducing too many new ideas late in the story. The title character develops a new relationship with an older woman, played by Julianne Moore, but this is only sketched out in broad strokes. Don Jon is a movie in search of a resolution and it never really finds one and so the filmmakers resort to a prefabricated Hollywood ending that is out of step with the tone of the movie.
Bottom Line: Taken as a whole Don Jon is a very good film. The moviemakers lose their way in the ending but there is plenty to this film that is admirable and it is a promising writing and directing debut from Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Episode: #459 (October 6, 2013)