“There’s only a few things I really care about in life. My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn,” Jon Martello tells us in a voiceover in the beginning of Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s directorial debut Don Jon. It’s his version of “GTL,” the phrase coined by MTV Jersey Shore star The Situation. For the record, it’s Gym, Tan, Laundry for those of you who were fortunate enough to live your lives without ever hearing about a Snooki and a JWoww. Gordon-Levitt might have modeled his Jon Martello on characters from the Jersey Shore but this isn’t reality TV. There is an affecting film here, crafted with enough rom-com sensibility to engage the Snookis of the world but also comment on male sexuality in an arresting indie-type way.
Jon Martello is an Italian-American twenty-something living in New Jersey. He goes out on the town with his boys and picks up chicks at clubs. He and his boys rate women on a scale from 1-10. Every Sunday he stops home for family dinner. Tony Danza plays the football-obsessed Italian father well. When Jon brings home Barbara Sugarman, played a little too perfectly by Scarlett Johansson to meet his family, Danza’s Jon Sr. jumps out of his seat and drools, surprised by what a bombshell she was. Jon’s mother played exceptionally well by Gleene Headly is lovely. According to her, she looks like a grandmother, yet she has no grandchildren to speak of. And she doesn’t hide her enthusiasm when Barbara offers her help in the kitchen, hoping this will be her future daughter-in-law. To round out the picture perfect Italian family is Jon’s sister played by Brie Larson, who finds herself in every family scene yet only has one speaking line in the entire film. She stares into her phone obnoxiously, texting in a way only she can. It’s brilliant actually. Not every actress can generate a laugh every time she’s on screen without having any line to work with.
On the surface Jon Martello might seem like a Jersey Shore prototype. A child reared by American television, magazines and the all-consuming internet. He has an unhealthy obsession with porn that complicates his relationship with Barbara and all of the women before her. He explains that sex with real women is great and all but nothing satisfies him the way the babes do in his porn videos. The porn stars never fuck missionary and always let you cum on their face or tits. Barbara is an Italian princess who doesn’t understand why Jon would ever need PornHub.com if he has access to her. After she catches him jacking off one morning after they spend the night together, she rushes into a fit of rage and makes him promise to never watch porn again. This is the beginning of Barbara’s manipulation. Little by little she turns Jon into her very own rom-com guido. A man who doesn’t use a Swiffer, who attends evening classes at a community college and never masturbates. Only a woman with the curvature of Scarlett Johansson’s body could get a man to do the things she wants him to do. But it’s a bit hypocritical for Barbara to not understand porn. According to her, she loves “movies” and by movies she means love stories. She believes there is a Ryan Gosling or Channing Tatum to sweep her off her feet. She believes in a prince charming in the same way that Jon believes there is a woman out there well versed in all things sex. They are both delusional in their gender appropriate ways.
Johansson is a total babe, a “dime” if you ask Jon and his buddies. Her Jersey accent is perfected by her perpetual gum chewing. The velour jumpsuit and Nelly Furtado hoop earrings complete the look. Johannson is great as Barbara. One of, if not the best performance in the entire movie. Her only competition is Julianne Moore who is introduced halfway into the film as a sobbing classmate at Jon’s college. We are introduced to her as she sobs near the entrance of the school while Jon walks in. When she goes to apologize to him after class she catches him watching porn on his smartphone. It’s the only place he can watch it because his girlfriend has been spending more and more time at his pad. Julianne Moore doesn’t miss a note. She might be one of the best criers out there. Here, she’s playing for laughs until we learn why she’s always crying. Not many actresses can balance the complexity of a character like Esther. There’s darkness and pain laced within exceptional comedic moments. There is an unintentional (or is it intentional?) correlation between Moore’s Esther to Moore’s Linda Partridge in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Magnolia. To quote Linda during one of the most infamous scenes in Magnolia, while at the pharmacy she screams, “Fuck you, too. Don’t call me ‘lady’ […] And you, you fucking call me ‘lady?’ Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on both of you!” In Don Jon, when Jon calls Esther a lady in class, she ask him, “Did you just call me lady?” clearly peeved by the word. It wasn’t until a friend cackled in the theater for me to get the connection and thanks to him that scene stands out most to me.
As Jon and Esther’s relationship progresses, Jon and Barbara’s relationship crumbles. You can probably guess what direction this movie is going in. Esther is an older woman, not yet a “lady,” but she isn’t a Barbara Sugarman. She has more than a few years on Jon. She’s experienced life. She understands that men watch porn. She understands that women sometimes watch porn as well. Esther shows Jon what real sex can be like if you really lose yourself within a person. It’s a two-way street. Both parties need to lose themselves to receive the full pleasure of lovemaking. At this point in the film, the plot becomes a little far-fetched and rudimentary. Don Jon has its moments of grandeur–the editing, performances and score are all stellar. During its second half it might stagger with plot platitudes but it remains charming the whole way through. Like Jon Martello is learning to leave his mediated idea of love and sex behind, Gordon-Levitt is learning to let go of his idea of what filmmaking should look like. Don Jon is an impressive debut with more staying power than a porn clip on Xtube. It uses Jersey Shore as a representation of male sexuality and deconstructs it from within. Don Jon offers a different take on masculinity–the male libido guided by love and real women rather than a laptop open to PornHub.com.
4 OUT OF 5 STARS
Don Jon is in theaters September 27