For some directors, it takes a few films to ease into a consistent creative voice. Others, including Martin Scorsese (Who’s That Knocking at My Door), Guillermo del Toro (Cronos), and Akira Kurosawa (Sugata Sanshio), seem to arrive fully-formed, establishing all of their thematic concerns and stylistic flourishes right at the beginning of their illustrious careers. With Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt earns a spot on the above list. He approaches the material (which he scripted himself) with the energy and confidence of a seasoned professional, delivering solid social commentary, compelling character studies, and plenty of genuine, well-deserved laughs.
The rapidly-edited opening montage of erotic/provocative imagery pulled from pop culture (music videos, commercials, and, of course, pornography) immediately sets the tone, mood, and rhythm for the subsequent meditation on sex, love, and meaningful relationships. This narrative context actually justifies the much-publicized title change (from Don Jon’s Addiction): while the protagonist’s dependence on porn certainly plays a role in his emotional journey, the story is really about his struggle to both find a worthy partner and to become one himself. A single obstacle stands in the way of achieving both goals: selfishness—Jon wants nothing more than random, dirty, anonymous sex, while his main romantic interest, Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, vanishing into her Jersey Girl persona), is obsessed with transforming her life into the perfect Hollywood Happy Ending, even if she has to bully her man into following her into the proverbial sunset. It takes an older, wiser, and more experienced woman (Julianne Moore) to teach Jon that real, functional adult relationships require patience, communication, and compromise.
Even if you don’t agree with Gordon-Levitt’s central thesis (that pornography and other media inherently inform how we approach romance and intercourse), you’ll still be delighted to lose yourself in the remarkably authentic behaviors and interactions of such immaculately-crafted characters.
[Originally written September 28, 2013.]