By BRUCE DENNILL
Don Jon / Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt / 16LNS
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut all-in feature – he’s the leading man in this examination of lust and life, which he also wrote and directed – is an interesting one.
For a start, it places pornography at the centre of the plot, which is a brave move for a piece that’s presumably aimed at the mainstream (unlike, say, the balls-and-all likes of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist).
That young men spend a lot of time peering at computer screen and cell phone screens packed to capacity with writhing, moaning adult actors and actresses laying their naked, er, emotion on the line is well-known. That Hollywood would provide a platform on which to explore the social impact of this phenomenon is unexpected (even if the film is not a major studio release).
Gordon-Levitt makes his character a would-be alpha male – less than a leader in terms of the impact he has on the lives of those around him, but dedicated to his appearance and the impression he makes (via his muscles, his car, his apartment and his reputation as a ladies’ man). His Jon Martello is, though arrogant, possessed of a certain charm that guarantees him a steady stream of the sort of women happy to go home with a stranger after a late night in a club. Counter to Martello’s expectations, though, being a stud doesn’t satisfy him. It’s the classic fantasy versus reality situation, where the warts-and-all follow-on to satin sheets and firm flesh is loneliness, boredom, worries about infections and a sustained feeling that there must be more to life.
Martello goes to church and regularly spends time with his family, but those outlets provide scant balance. He uses (or abuses) the former as a sort of get out of jail free card, and his relatives include an entirely disinterested sister and a father (a great performance from Tony Danza) from whom he’s clearly inherited much, including casual misogyny.
When he finally finds sexual satisfaction with a living being – in the shape of Scarlett Johansson, who’s about as deep as he is but who initially provides a spark he hasn’t previously been able to find – Martello believes he may be on course to realise his dream of great sex and something resembling meaning. The cost to him is a modicum of domesticity, including having to sign up for night school at his new partner’s request.
There he meets another woman (Julianne Moore) – older, in no way a trophy, independent – who appreciates the fact that Martello is struggling with the new rules imposed on his life. She has no such agenda and, indeed, supports him, encouraging to embrace what he sees as his faults as well as his strengths.
This confuses Martello still further, and his bewilderment is extended given that his addiction to porn is as pervasive as it’s always been, despite his achieving what he believed would replace adult websites as a stimulant.
Unsurprisingly – perhaps wisely – Gordon-Levitt doesn’t provide answers for viewers who find themselves identifying strongly with the various aspects of what is takes place here: porn addiction; loneliness; insecurity; peer and societal pressure and failure. Suggesting that there are easy fixes for any of these conditions would be naïve, so steering clear of any propagandising in this regard makes the piece feel more real – real enough, certainly, that you’ll feel as awkward watching this as you would watching under-the-counter porn if you had been less than honest about your own proclivities with a more prudish partner.
But like the bulk of sexual fantasies – burning, exhilarating desire, followed by (if you’re lucky) some pleasing but fleeting moments of intimacy, after which there’s either fatigue or melancholy – Don Jon rather peters out after some great build-up and edgy, staccato, development.
It’s a good film, but you may feel like it should have been better. As to providing a metaphor for sex in general then, Gordon-Levitt may be onto something.