There are certain actors that, as a general rule, don’t make bad movies. You can probably find an exception here and there, but for the most part, these actors choose daring roles in audacious movies that are in a capable director’s hands. They know exactly what they’re doing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of those actors.
From 2005’s underseen “Brick” to the emotional “50/50” to one of the most honest explorations of love ever put to screen in “(500) Days of Summer,” he has proven himself as one of today’s most versatile, and underrated, actors. His directorial debut, “Don Jon,” lacks the visual flair or steady pacing a more experienced director can obtain, but the quality is still there. From laughs to tears to some surprising and genuine meaning, “Don Jon” is a delight.
Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a ladies man. He’s so successful with picking up women on a week to week basis that his friends actually call him “The Don.” He has no problem showing up at a club, meeting a girl, seducing her and taking her home for some late night fun. The problem is he considers sex secondary to his one true passion: porn. Put simply, he’s a junkie, someone who watches porn dozens of times a week, only to confess to his priest and be absolved of his sins.
However, he soon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a knock-out he considers to be a perfect 10 in regards to looks. For the first time ever, he begins dating her, breaking his streak of hooking up with a new girl every week, but his love of porn and her strong hatred of it is going to strain their relationship.
“Don Jon” is a strange breed. It has central characters that aren’t good people, or even interesting ones. Aside from the title character, most are throwaway, including Jon’s two friends and his sister who stares into her phone the entire movie until speaking some words of wisdom near the end, and many of them do and say things that make you wonder why we should care at all about them.
Even Jon has anger issues, particularly while driving, which is shown through random segues from scene to scene. While one scene culminates into him punching through the side window of a motorist’s car, the compilation of these scenes culminate to nothing. There’s no reason for this other than to create ill will towards a character we’re supposed to enjoy watching.
Yet the movie has a soul, even while some of the characters arguably don’t. Although most Hollywood movies portray sex and sexuality in ways that glamorize it to unrealistic heights, “Don Jon” looks at sex from a more spiritual view, despite the pornography focused central story. Jon is obsessed with porn and considers it the pinnacle of sexuality, something that can’t be topped by someone with whom he’s physically engaging.
When Barbara comes along, he says he’s in love, but as he expresses his love to her, he says she’s “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever laid his eyes on. His love is purely for her aesthetic qualities and what she could potentially offer him in bed. He fails to realize the shallow and selfish person underneath those looks.
When they finally hop in the sack, she, unsurprisingly, fails to match the feelings watching pornography gives him. This is because he’s not truly forming a connection. Yet as the film goes on, he grows. From sources I won’t spoil here, Jon learns the true value of sex. He learns that sex can be something more than getting off, but rather something special between two people. It’s an interesting turn of events and a great exploration of what sex can offer aside from the obvious pleasures, even if the previous focus on porn addiction is simpleminded at best.
“Don Jon” isn’t a long film—a mere 90 minutes, including opening and closing credits—which may be why its themes don’t resonate as much as they should, but in a cinematic world that seems to value sex over love, we shouldn’t shun a movie that sees deeper meaning in the former, even while it mostly ignores the latter.