Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Don Jon

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's a point in Don Jon when the womanizing title character is roped into taking his date to a formulaic romantic comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum. It's especially ironic considering this film could have easily turned into one of those in less capable hands than Joseph Gordon-Levitt's, whose directorial/screenwriting debut (and the first feature under his HitRecord production banner) has some clever, surprising things to say about sex and relationships, at least by Hollywood standards. The conclusion it comes to and the paces he takes to get there proves he could have as much potential behind the camera as in front of it, which is no small praise. While the genre and topic it covers would definitely seem to be a strange choice for the actor better known for dark, gritty dramas, the story confounds expectations, in addition to providing plenty of laughs. And in doing that, he also manages to write himself a role that's as big a departure as anything he's recently done as an actor.

In his own words, New Jersey native Jon Martello cares about only a few things: "my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn." If he were to rank them in order of preference, that last one would come in pretty high. Despite having a very active sex life, Jon's addiction to online pornography is out of control, with his most controversial claim being that he could never get the pleasure out of sex that he does from masturbating to porn. Through voiceovers and some really clever editing, he explains in detail exactly why. It's only when out clubbing with his friends and rating girls that he encounters Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who isn't surrendering to his charms without a fight. And even when she does, seems determined to reform him, forcing Jon to work for it and play the long game to win her over

It's clear early Barbara isn't just another one of his conquests, as she holds an unflinchingly traditional view of relationships. She even convinces him to enroll in school, where he meets Esther (Julianne Moore) a kooky, highly emotional middle-aged woman who can't seem to leave him alone. Now finally with a girlfriend that earns the approval of his doting mother Angela (Glenne Headley) and sports-obsessed, profanity spewing father, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza!), he has to hope she'll be able to overloook his escalating porn addiction, which is threatening to destroy their relationship.

Don Jon exposes a lot of uncomfortable truths about how men and women behave in relationships, and why, despite the best of intentions, they frequently fail to make it work. This is essentially about two characters in a fantasy, with the addition of a third, who seems crazy but is actually the only one clued into reality. Aside from some of the porn footage interspersed throughout the picture to depict the extent of Jon's addiction, the full-fledged nudity is actually kept at a minimum, which had to be intentional given that this isn't what this is about. Initially we hear some pretty crazy things via Jon's voiceover that most other movies (especially mainstream rom-coms) wouldn't even touch. And we see it and hear it in graphic detail, which is kind of disturbing since it hits on some uncomfortable truths neither gender would publicly admit to. Some of it is crude and unfair, but a lot of it just simply stems from the title character's inability to connect with women on any level but the physical. And according to him, he isn't even finding enough fulfillment in that area either.

Whether it's porn online or a girlfriend, sex for Jon is a one-sided, masturbatory exercise in getting himself off and there's nothing even Barbara can do to change that. She's just as deluded and into herself as he is, extracting from him what she needs to attain the perfect, unrealistic life depicted in the goofy romantic comedies she loves. Operating under the false guise of class and stability, she thinks Jon's job is to provide it to her, with no questions asked. That in exchange for sex is why this relationship is bad news from the get-go. It makes sense she'd be repulsed by his porn addiction and he'd be repulsed by her freaking out over discovering it. Neither character is particularly likable in the least, but they are complex, with both actors giving the audience a window to their motivations.

JGL writes himself a role that reminds us that before all the dramatic acclaim, he was (and still is) a gifted comic presence. He infuses Jon with considerably more substance than the character's misogynist musclehead persona initially suggests while Johansson has the tough task of playing someone who's integrity is first underestimated then greatly overestimated by the end of the picture. For some reason, I was surprised at every turn with what happened with Julianne Moore's Esther and her ultimate purpose in the story. It's an odd part, yet she has every bit of it covered without missing a beat, with a role more significant and interesting than anything the trailers and commercials hinted at. Moore, the pro she is, finds a way to make it even more intriguing than that by slowly revealing this crazy, nosy, disheveled woman as someone wise and worth paying attention to.  

Reunited with his Angels in the Outfield co-star, the great Tony Danza steals scenes as Jon's overexcited dad, even more impressed with the hotness level of his son's new girlfriend than the score in whatever game he's watching during dinner. It's a treat anytime the too frequently underseen sitcom hero, boxer, teacher, author and former talk show host appears in anything, so it's a relief when Danza's let completely loose to entertain like only he can, providing most of the film's biggest laughs. And in a nearly wordless, dialogue-free performance, Brie Larson's face may be buried in her phone texting as Jon's sister, Monica, but conveys more with an occasional eye roll or sideways glance than most other actresses would with pages of dialogue. She knows exactly what's happening and we know when she does eventually speak, it'll be important. Compare this to most other rom-coms, which do have characters text throughout the entire film. But not as a joke or commentary. They really have no clue what's going on.

It isn't often that you have no idea where a rom-com is going but this one caught me completely off guard with its u-turn midway through. What starts out looking like it's going to be an extended episode of The Jersey Shore gives way to something more profound, as its clear JGL is using these character types for a reason. The movie is wiser and funnier than it lets on, leaving much of the work to the audience in figuring out how. While this isn't as strong a film, it does make an unlikely companion piece to (500) Days of Summer, hitting a few of the same notes, but in a more graphic way that doesn't go down quite as easily. Both are about two characters living in relationship fantasy land. While Don Jon still seems like a strange choice for JGL's directorial debut, there's no question he makes very tricky material work when it has no business to. There are many ways this could have turned into a disaster but he saves it, delivering something that's increasingly rare: A smart romantic comedy.   

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