What it's about:
Jon (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is in many respects a regular joe who is close to friends and family, attends church regularly and works a basic job, but his tendency to objectify everything from cars to his body to members of the opposite sex means that he finds it all but impossible to form a meaningful, committed relationship with a woman – a problem that is exacerbated by his obsession with pornography. Things soon start to change for Jon though,when he meets and falls for the voluptuous, sexy Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) whose own obsession with Hollywood's depiction of romance means that she too has trouble managing her expectations in relationships.
What we thought:
Joseph Gordon Levitt has come a long way from the young, scrawny kid who were first introduced to in the intergalactic sitcom, Third Rock from the Sun. From Third Rock he went on to become a very promising teen actor in rock solid teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You, before becoming the versatile and massively talented adult actor whose uncanny ability to straddle the line between movie star and character actor has resulted in some very memorable roles in such notable films as 500 Days of Summer, 50/50, Inception, Looper and Lincoln. As such, his being exceptionally good in the titular role of Don Jon is hardly surprising, but the same certainly can't be said of his work behind the camera as Don Jon marks the young but veteran actor's (32 years old but with some 63 acting credits to his name) directorial debut.
The history of cinema is littered with actor-turned-filmmakers and though many of these "hyphenated talents" have churned out some seriously exceptional films in their time, few have made so gutsy an opening statement as Gordon-Levitt. Take, for example, Lake Bell whose In A World presented us with a clearly very talented filmmaker who had before that largely been unfairly ignored as a seriously charming and funny leading lady but while In a World was an effortlessly enjoyable charmer, it never aimed anywhere near as high as Gordon-Levitt does in his own auspicious debut.
Don Jon is in part a comedy, in part a romance and in part a character drama but is primarily a film about contemporary relationships and how they are affected by the unrealistic expectations brought about by a constant bombardment of mass media. It's not, as some have portrayed it as being, about the evils of porn or, for that matter of crappy romantic comedies – both are seen as being fundamentally neutral phenomena that are only made positive or negative by those who consume them – but is about how external pressures of everything from religion to porn, mix with our own internal illusions, insecurities and complexes to create a complicated web of lies that serves only to obscure our relationships with others and our ourselves.
It's not a film that is accusatory, as it spends next to none of its time pointing fingers at things that are in effect only symptoms of a far more intricate problem but is one that is unquestionably daring, ambitious and well-intentioned. And please, no more of this nonsense about it basically just being Shame-light as it's really not about sex addiction and is, in almost all respects, a very different film from Steve McQueen's tough breakthrough work.
With all of this going for it, it's impossible not to at least admire Don Jon, regardless of it's flaws. I personally more than merely admire it but even I wouldn't deny that it does have some definite flaws. While it's well written, well directed and well played by a top notch cast – Johansson, in particular, is something of a revelation here – Don Jon does have some of those ragged edges that often come with first time directors (and, for what it's worth, first time novelists, debut albums and pilot episodes as well). It sometimes come across as trying to hard stylistically, is somewhat unevenly paced and not every plot element and plot turn entirely convinces.
Nonetheless, it doesn't particularly matter that Don Jon isn't perfect as any flaws are easily matched by the exceptionally resonant power of what it does get right, by the sheer chutzpah of what it is trying to achieve and by fact that it heralds the arrival of a filmmaker who looks set to do great, great things in the future. And that we happen to have known the guy since he was a wee kid only makes the whole thing all the more extraordinary.
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