Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: "Don Jon"

“Don Jon” is the loutish inheritor to other cinematic lotharios who only have one thing on their mind -- Tony Manero from “Saturday Night Fever,” George Rondy in “Shampoo,” etc. Like them, writer/director/star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is interested in seeing if his character has a redemptive side, which this charming comedy/drama sets about exploring.

I just backspaced to remove the word “romantic” from that last sentence, because if there’s anything Jon is not, it’s a starry-eyed wooer of women. Muscled up and hair greased back in an unmovable wave, his friends call him Don Jon because of his unwavering ability to pick up “dimes” -- their word for gorgeous women. (Ten out of 10, get it?) The exchange rate on these dimes is depressing, though, as Jon beds and drops them in short order.

His real ardor, though, is for porn. Jon’s encounters with online smut dwarf even his fleshly hook-ups. As we learn from his regular glib confessions to his priest, it’s not unusual for him to hit two dozen -- or more -- sins per week.

(Whatever else you want to say, the boy certainly has stamina.)

The movie really pushes the envelope in terms of sexual content and presenting a character who is, at least initially, so compellingly unlikeable. Jon even describes why he considers self-pleasuring to porn to be superior to sex with an actual woman. And he screams around town in his vintage Chevrolet Chevelle SS, hollering at other drivers like a madman -- often while on his way to church.

All that changes when Jon meets the ultimate dime: Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson. She and Gordon-Levitt have terrific fire as an onscreen couple. Decked out in slightly trashy clothes and makeup, slinging around a grating Jersey boy accent that matches Jon’s, Barbara is the perfect yin to his superficial yang. The fact that she puts him off sexually only drives him crazier for her.

“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Jon tells her, and he really means it. At first it’s an overpoweringly romantic moment. But each time he repeats the phrase, which is often, it sounds less dreamy and more like a pickup line. It becomes even cheaper when we realize her looks are the only thing drawing him to her.

Jon’s regular Sunday meal with his family is an exercise in hilarity, and tragedy. Mom (Glenne Headly) is a shrieking harridan, sister Monica (Brie Larson) rarely takes her nose out of her smartphone, and dad (Tony Danza) dispenses hostility in between downs of the football game roaring away on the big screen in the next room. It’s telling that the only time Jon Sr. ever shows any respect for his son is when he’s introduced to his hot new girlfriend.

Needless to say, it’s only a matter of time before Jon’s porn addiction comes between him and Barbara. He defensively claims that every guy does it -- which is like an alcoholic claiming that everybody drinks, failing to distinguish between occasional indulgences and nightly blackout binges.

He does have a point, though, when he sneers at the mushy romance movies favored by Barbara and her friends, filled with pretty people who always come to happy endings. (These are acted out in short vignettes by the likes of Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway, both veterans of actual such flicks.) In some ways, the female insistence upon an orderly, unattainable romantic ideal is just as unhealthy as Jon’s obsession with impossibly beautiful girls who just want sex.

Things get more ambitious with the introduction of Esther (Julianne Moore), an older classmate of Jon’s who stumbles across his porn obsession and repeatedly engages him in odd conversations. It’s an interesting sequence, but it seems to build up to a third act that the story never gets around to telling.

“Don Jon” ends on an abrupt, truncated note -- much like the man’s thoroughly selfish love life. Still, this is a bracingly original and daring first feature film for a young actor who’s already spent 20 years in front of a camera, and clearly has something to say behind one.

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