"Despite the seemingly grim subject matter, Gordon-Levitt goes the upbeat route with his debut feature."

Connoisseurs of the work of the former Third Rock From The Sun star-turned-indie darling will know that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not one to shy way from controversial subject matter- witness his outstanding and raw turn in the Gregg Araki film Mysterious Skin.

Here though in Don Jon, Levitt is not only star but also the writer/director of a film whose synopsis sounds more than a little like Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama Shame. Gordon-Levitt plays the titular ‘Don’ Jon Martello, a New Jersey-based Italian American getting by with bar work and spending his paychecks cruising for one night stands. As his twangy accented voiceover tells us early on, Jon has few ambitions beyond maintaining the key elements of his life - his pals, his car, his bachelor pad, his gym... and internet porn. Lots of porn. In fact, hours of it every day. You see, Jon does do real life sex, and plenty of it. As the first act shows us in a series of energetically shot and funny montages - his nightclub jaunts more often than not result in a score with a hot girl, putting him well ahead of his pals Bobby and Danny and keeping his title of ‘Don’ safe. But it isn’t enough, hasn’t been enough for a long, long time. Real sex just doesn’t match up to the digital fantasies only one mouse click away, and which Jon and everyone else can see every time anyone turns on a TV.

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Having briskly established the classic scenario of a main character firmly locked into a supposedly satisfying routine, Gordon-Levitt then introduces the instability that leads to the moral education. Having lusted so long for a girl who can meet or exceed his online fantasies, Jon becomes fixated on Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who he runs into on one of his many nightclub sojourns. Barbara is a stunning but somewhat old- fashioned girl who eats up saccharine romantic Hollywood movies and is determined to make Jon wait - and work - for the prize. This isn’t exactly the kind of attitude Jon thought he could get with, but he plunges full steam ahead into a relationship with Barbara anyway, convinced that her beauty is such that he can finally cancel that porn direct debit.

Surely he has found the real-life fantasy at last. Needless to say, not everything goes to plan. As Jon struggles to keep that laptop lid closed (knowing full well Barbara is not the open-minded type), Esther, a fellow pupil at Jon’s night class, starts to show him a different attitude towards sex that might offer a new way forward.

Despite the seemingly grim subject matter, Gordon-Levitt goes the upbeat route with his debut feature. At just 90 minutes, the thing zips along nicely, an appropriate pace given the main character is in no hurry to slow down. Clearly enjoying every minute of his screen time, Gordon-Levitt plays Jon with the swagger dial up to 11 and goes for the laughs rather than shocks. Don Jon is a funny film to watch, with Gordon-Levitt working quite an offbeat sense of humor into the mix. He repeatedly undercuts Jon’s braggadocio by giving the character a hat full of amusing foibles, habits and compulsions. Jon cannot understand why Barbara won’t let him clean his own flat when Jon is just so down with the smell of Mr Muscle: cleaning is his special joy (other than porn) and he is more than keen to explain the benefits of different mops and wipes to her. At his regular confession slot at church, Jon notes to the priest every exact incidence of masturbation for that week, the total veering up and down as Jon’s fortunes shift throughout the film. One particularly hilarious moment comes when we see Jon rocking out to Marky Mark and the Funky bunch in his ride, only to snap out of it when he realises a car has pulled up beside him.

Gordon-Levitt balances out the gags with a smattering of cerebral nuggets and interesting characters that there is always something thoughtful to chew on as well as chuckle at. Whether mumbling various ditties whilst pumping iron at the gym, bickering with his blue collar father decked out in a matching wife beater vest, or drooling over the next hyper- real online porn encounter, Gordon-Levitt plays Jon with gusto but doesn’t make him so comical or annoying that any subtext about the way the modern American male constructs his masculinity and his expectations is overwhelmed. This is a portrayal of a man who, whether through upbringing (a few family dinner scenes imply Jon is something of a chip off the old block) or too much guzzling on America’s sex-saturated media, has not been given the tools to learn about how sex and intimacy are not the same thing. In fact, most of the characters in this film are laboring under manufactured and inflated expectations that are doomed to never be satisfied. Levitt handles his character of Jon well enough that by the end of the film this man-child who initially appears as just a preening asshole worthy of being taken down a peg has not only become a bit more explainable, but a little more vulnerable and three dimensional too.

Ultimately more amiable than sexually explicit, Don Jon is too lightweight and straightforward to truly tickle the higher brain functions about these issues in the same way that McQueen’s film did, but it is just so damn hard not to like it.

Reviewed on: 22 Oct 2013
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A porn-obsessed man tries to give up the one-night stands when he meets a woman whose appeal might exceed his fantasies.
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Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Writer: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Rob Brown

Year: 2013

Runtime: 86 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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