Wednesday, November 6, 2013

'Don Jon' (2013) directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt ★★★★

Joseph Gordon-Levitt does an awful lot of wanking in Don Jon.  Not five minutes of the film pass without an image of his face, pale-lit in the glowing laptop twilight, jaw slightly ajar, eyes glassy, rhythmically tossing himself off. Gordon-Levitt writes, directs and stars in Don Jon, so I kind of wish that I could say the film itself was narcissistic masturbation to satisfy the half-baked artistic urges of an A-list actor.  But I can't.  Because Don Jon is great.

Gordon-Levitt plays the eponymous Jon.  He's young, muscled and good looking, known as 'Don' Jon by his friends due to an unbroken streak of taking a girl home from a nightclub every Saturday night. Despite this, he doesn't seem to particularly enjoy sex.  No, Jon (at least in his internal monologue) is an evangelist for pornography.  He loves the stuff, dismayed that reality just can't compare to the pumped up tits, bums and lips of porn stars. His mania is such that even while lying in a post-coital doze with a beautiful woman wrapped around him, he has to sneak away, crank up the laptop and crank off.

Jon instinctively objectifies women, though we quickly realise he's not entirely to blame for his behaviour.  We begin with a dizzying whirl of imagery showcasing the prevalence of pornography right through modern culture, from advertising, television and cinema right down to the bro-fuelled fistbumping lingo of his friends as they rate women out of ten and refer to them as 'pink', 'ponytail' or 'blonde'.  This objectification comes to a head when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). Jon describes her as "the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life", the operative word there being 'thing'.  Barbara is everything that Jon has been trained to desire and so, naturally, he falls head over heels for her.  Now he's the cat that's got the cream, but even with Barbara he still can't achieve the same sexual fufilment that he gets from internet porn.

Jon and his father (Tony Danza)
First and foremost, Don Jon is about the psychological effects of pornography addiction. Gordon-Levitt argues that it subtly warps your perspective, giving you unrealistic expectations of what sex should be and encourages you to view women as passive recipients of sex rather than partners.  Don Jon goes a bit deeper than this, eventually concluding that much of popular culture functions as pornography and that it leads to an inevitable emotional solipsism; an overwhelming desire to fulfil ones own needs above all else. 

Though he's committed to his hedonism, Jon is also committed to his Catholicism, attending church with his family and confessing his sins.  Confession genuinely works for Jon: every Sunday he breezily explains how much sex he's had and precisely how many times he's masturbated this week.  To absolve his sins he's told to say x Lords Prayers and x Hail Marys, which he does while pumping iron in the gym.  These confession scenes recur throughout the film, the amount of penitence he's instructed to varying by how much sex and how many wanks he's had.  Interestingly, Gordon-Levitt never shows us the priest. Instead, we fill the role - Jon speaks at us - directly challenging us to judge the morality of his actions, and, by extension our own.

With all this talk of objectification, penitence and emotional solipsism you'd be forgiven for thinking that Don Jon is a rather serious and worthy movie.  It's really not, though it's grappling with some pretty weighty issues, the tone is light, comedic and slightly wry throughout.  This is essentially a film about wanking, so the jizz jokes are appropriate as well as damn funny.  Adding to the humour is that most of these characters are stereotypes, especially Jon's family, who have arrived fully formed via The Sopranos. They're all grotesques, but importantly they're well drawn, convincingly played and loveable grotesques.

Barbara (Scarlett Johansson)
It's Gordon-Levitt and Johansson that do the heavy lifting.  Both are playing outside their comfort zones, and both are playing rather unpleasant people.  Johansson trashes it up a bit as Barbara, snarling and purring through a nasal New Jersey accent.  Jon and his friends call her a "fuckin' bitch", only crime she's guilty of is reflecting the men's behaviour back at them, Jon and Barbara never really considering the other as a person, more as a mutual status symbols.

As fun a character as Barbara is, it's Jon that steals the show. He's surprisingly relatable for sexist, violent, homophobic wank fiend, a testament to Gordon-Levitt's writing and acting talent, shored up by his natural charisma.  As Jon's view on the world evolves, we're right there alongside him.  When he's attracted to Barbara, we're attracted to Barbara.  When he's horny, we're horny.  When he goes off Barbara, we go off Barbara. There's a pinch of young De Niro to the performance, a curl of the lip and the raise of an eyebrow speaking volumes as to his state of mind.

Directorially he's no slump either, the quick cutting between low bit-rate, washed out video as Jon browses porn a nice representation of the channel hopping, low attention span of the chronic internet masturbator.  This depiction of addiction is straight from Darren Aronofsky's playbook from Requiem for a Dream, but given an online twist - what works there works here too.  The film is also crammed with clever sound design, for example the Mac startup sound functions as a Pavlovian conditioner, letting the audience know that Jon is having a wank without us actually having to see it.

Don Jon is a very, very good film.  Internet pornography is the elephant in the room in modern society and when Jon protests "all men look at it!" he's not far wrong. Yet considering how universally pervasive it is, this subject is almost always absent from cinema, because it's slightly embarrassing, kinda gross and next to impossible to portray with dignity.  What self respecting young heart-throb wants to see themselves, jaw gritted, cock in hand, pleasuring himself on a 30 foot wide screen?  The answer is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who with humour, intelligence and a confident cinematic style, tackles a sticky head on and comes out on top.  Sure it gets a little gooey towards the climax, but I think it's earned it.  


Don Jon is in cinemas from November 15th.

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