Don Jon: Sundance Review

Don Jon's Addiction

U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

In Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s charming directorial debut, a selfish modern-day Don Juan attempts to change his ways. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Rob Brown.

The addiction is to porn, with often crude and blunt results that will likely appeal to like-minded boys and young men.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes his writing and directing debut with a tale about a party boy obsessed with sex, porn and Scarlett Johansson.

Francois Truffaut’s characters used to intently pose the question, “Are films more important than life?” whereas Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s horndog in Don Jon’s Addiction wrestles with the philosophical conundrum that seems more relevant to contemporary young men, “Is porn preferable to real sex?” Crude, repetitive and rigorously single-minded, the popular actor’s writing and directing debut lays it all on a bit thick, as the few points the film has to make are underscored time and time again. Still, the preoccupation with sex, and the presence of Scarlett Johansson as the object of some of that obsession, might hit high school- and college-age boys where they live, resulting in a tidy piece of change from that particular market.

Gordon-Levitt spends a good deal of time here showing off his gym-fit bod but, at 31, seems a shade too old to play immature New Jersey party boy Jon Martello, who spends his nights clubbing with two buds who are in constant awe of Jon’s batting average with babes.

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In an unending stream of illustrated narration, Jon fully acknowledges his prowess but unfavorably compares the real thing to porn, which he devours with an appetite that is never sated. When he dutifully attends his neighborhood church for confession every week, he enumerates with immaculate precision how many sins he has committed with women (usually one or two) and with the assistance of porn (always well into double digits); the film’s favorite cutaway shot, employed far too many times, is of a used Kleenex landing in the wastebasket.

Jon’s voice-over is extremely explicit in detailing his sexual likes and dislikes, while the accompanying footage of actual porn stops just short of showing what is being described. All the same, it’s hard to say whether the cut shown at Sundance would get away with an R rating; it’s very borderline -- and, frankly, there’s too much redundant footage.

Still, things look like they might change with the arrival on the scene of Barbara (Johansson), whose 10-plus status is undercut only by her thick Joisey accent and constant gum-chewing. She does nothing to deflect Jon’s throbbing interest in her but won’t sleep with him for a long time. We they finally do it, he’s convinced he’s finally found the woman for him, but this still doesn’t squelch his longtime secondhand habit, which he still, in a way, prefers.

When Barbara finally finds out about it, she’s outta there without giving him a second chance; she won’t play second fiddle to his fantasy life and couldn’t trust him to change his ways. But his perspective soon is altered by an older woman, Esther (Julianne Moore), a fellow night school student who initially comes on too strong (she gives him a copy of some Danish porn from the ‘70s) but ultimately provides the means by which he can begin to stop objectifying women as he has since he was a teenager.

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The ending suggests some possible serious impulses behind Gordon-Levitt’s intentions for this material, but while it’s true that you can’t really show the cure without exploring the sickness that necessitated it, the fact remains that the director positively luxuriates in his character’s addiction. There’s a heavy testosterone-driven pushiness -- rather than a deeply felt sex drive as an elemental force of nature that’s crucial to this man’s self-expressiveness -- that soon becomes obnoxious, and a lack of self-reflection that leaves Jon, and the film with him, frustratingly one-dimensional.

Both as a director and actor, Gordon-Levitt is switched on all the time, offering little shading or nuance. As Jon’s dad, Tony Danza is an amusing loudmouth whose estimation of his son goes up tenfold when he brings Barbara home for dinner; the older guy clearly wouldn’t mind some of that action himself. Johansson seems to enjoy playing a sex bomb several stages down in station from her real self, while Moore, after her character’s stumbling start, offers some provocative variations on the character of a needy, love-starved middle-aged woman.

Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway surprise by turning up in a goofy trailer for an imaginary film shown in a movie theater where Jon and Barbara go on a date.

Craft contributions are, no doubt intentionally, on the loud and garish side.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production: Voltage Pictures, HitRECord, Ram Bergman Productions
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Rob Brown, Glenne Headly,  Brie Larson, Jeremy Luke, Italia Ricci, Amanda Perez, Lindsey Broad
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Screenwriter: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Producer: Ram Bergman
Executive producer: Nicolas Chartier
Director of photography: Thomas Kloss
Production designer: Meghan C. Rogers
Costume designer: Leah Katznelson
Editor: Lauren Zuckerman
Music: Nathan Johnson
No rating, 88 minutes