When discussing sexuality in film, there’s a fine line to draw as to how the filmmakers will illustrate their point. This becomes a small issue in the fairly perceptive and admittedly entertaining "Don Jon," which happens to be the directorial debut of writer and star Joseph Gordon Levitt. He stated he wanted to make a romantic comedy about a guy who watches too much porn who falls for a girl who gets all of her romantic notions from Hollywood movies. Thus this film was born.
Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a stereotypical New York Italian who loves working out, the ladies, his family, church, and... porn. In fact, porn, he admits, is more satisfying than real sex, which clearly is an indicator of some deeper problems. One night at a club, he runs into Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) who he thinks is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. The two hit it off, but before he can slide her into a cab and into his apartment, she puts a stop to it and heads home. Desperate to find her, he hunts her down and asks her on a date. The two get along famously, and they start dating. Except, she still wants to wait to have sex.
Meanwhile, Don keeps going to confession telling the parish priest how many times he’s had sex out of wedlock and how many times he’s masturbated (which is fairly often). He is told to say a few Lord’s Prayers and call it a day. His family, led by his foul-mouthed, football-obsessed father (Tony Danza), includes his constantly annoyed mother (Glenne Headly) and silent sister (Brie Larson), who are thrilled when he finally brings home a girl (especially his father who clearly wouldn’t mind getting a piece of her which does not go unnoticed by Don).
Throughout their dating, Barbara convinces Don to go to night school and starts to control a lot of his behaviors, one of which is his porn problem. Except she doesn’t know it’s a problem, because after she catches him in the act, he lies and says it was a one-time thing. But, alas, he is lying, and this will cause problems in the future.
Finally, there’s Esther (Julianne Moore) a middle-aged woman who finds herself befriending Don and will eventually have a profound effect on him. All of these elements add up to an engaging story; however, on a number of levels it doesn’t succeed.
For one thing, the discussion of porn and its effect on Don is told in voice-over with garish flashes of real pornography that is more than suggestive. The first few times it’s okay, but after the fifth or sixth array of heavy cutting to Don masturbating and porn images flooding his head, we just get annoyed. This reviewer isn’t a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but in mixed company it makes for some uncomfortable movie viewing.
Then there’s the plot.
Gordon-Levitt has a lot to say about how some guys don’t know what a real intimate connection is all about. People do rely on porn too much and there is a porn addiction problem in this country. But don’t go to this film looking for answers or for reasons. We don’t really understand Don’s obsession with porn, or the wall he’s built up to protect him from intimacy. Clearly, his father has some issues which he picks up from him, but it’s never really locked down. With movies like "Shame" and "Thanks for Sharing" tackling the subject, this seemed to leave the "help" part on the floor, making it ultimately appear as though Don was able to kick the habit because of magical interactions with the right people.
Furthermore, the interesting premise of a guy who gets his intimacy from porn and a woman who gets it from romantic comedies is never fully explored. This could have been a romantic comedy about two people dealing with false expectations and learning to meet in the middle. Instead, Barbara has many other issues, not the least of which is that she is controlling and selfish. When we start to realize that, it shifts the tone and the message, which happens a few times in the film.
Gordon-Levitt certainly has some talent as a filmmaker, but there is a sense that he is trying too hard to mimic his favorites. He does a terrific job with his cast (Johansson is pitch-perfect here,) and some of the writing is wonderfully insightful, but it’s undermined by the "Entourage"-like antics of Don and his friends, and the insistence in being overly vulgar. There will be a certain segment of the audience that will not appreciate the endless naked bodies, porn clips, and incessant swearing. There is a point where you wish everyone would shut up, despite liking what a lot of them have to say.
It’s a fascinating subject, and Gordon-Levitt has scratched the surface in a nice way, but he needed to dig a little deeper to get past the tissues in the trash and find out what’s really buried there.