With his directorial debut, Don Jon (for which he was also the screenwriter), Joseph Gordon-Levitt has certainly proven he’s a man of many talents. The film itself is not without its flaws, but for a first venture behind the camera rather than in front of it, Don Jon reminds us that throughout his career, Gordon-Levitt hasn’t been afraid to take some bold moves that, more often than not, pay off. I’m going to admit right now that I’m a self proclaimed “JGL” fan, so you may want to take this with a pinch of salt, but rest assured I’m not about to rave about why everyone should watch this film.
The film centers around Jon Martello, an Italian Jersey stud fondly dubbed “Don” by his “boys” for his ability to consistently pick up and take home attractive women. It becomes clear to us early on that Jon is set in his ways, living his life in a routine he has mastered — one that includes regularly watching porn, and weekly confessions at church for these and his other sins. But Jon doesn’t realize he’s addicted to porn; he just knows that it lets him “lose himself” in a way he can’t with someone else. Enter Barbara: a Jersey girl, a “dime”, and someone who isn’t about to let Jon play her. And right when you think you know how the rest of the film plays out, Gordon-Levitt throws you for a loop. Barbara has an “addiction” of her own — Hollywood romcoms — and they skew her expectations of men almost as much as porn skews Jon’s views of women, best seen in a scene where she tells him that if a man loves a woman he would give up absolutely everything for her and do whatever she wanted.
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, Gordon-Levitt has taken a romcom and turned it into a commentary on the objectification and commodification of people in today’s society, whether through men’s unrealistic (and often degrading) views of women as sexual objects, or women’s equally unrealistic assumptions of a man’s role or “duty” to be entirely chivalrous in a relationship. When word first emerged that Don Jon was to be based on porn addiction, there was much comparison to Steve McQueen’s 2011 film about sex addiction, “Shame,” and while that was eye-opening for many in its own right, the two films have little more in common. While “Shame” tackles its taboo subject matter in a fairly sobering light, the fast-paced and genuinely hilarious script of Don Jon makes the film much more accessible to a wider audience, making a point without being obvious or insistent about it.
Having said that, however, there are points in the film where we find ourselves questioning whether it is truly being satirical about these concepts or whether it has fallen prey to perpetuating some of the very stereotypes it is trying to mock. Highlights include the film that Jon and Barbara go to see — “Special Someone,” featuring cameos from Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway — and a particularly racy TV advert, as the two are exaggerated to an extreme at which it is impossible not to find them ridiculous. On the other hand, many of the scenes from Jon and Barbara’s relationship, from his initial courting of her to the inevitable fight when she discovers his addiction, seem to take as fact the assumption that men are more interested in sex and women more so in settling down and long term relationships. In many ways, the film’s saving grace is its final act, which stirs things up, although even this falls into traditional love story territory a bit too much to be doing anything really special.
Don Jon, ultimately, is a film that tries to do something special, and it gets major brownie points for doing so in a funny, lighthearted way, but it falls just a little short of actually achieving its goals. The unfortunate, slightly tasteless stereotyping of Italian families (complete with men in tight white vests and mothers complaining about wanting grandchildren) aside, it’s generally a very easygoing, likable creation, and this is what makes it unique given its risqué subject matter. It might not be for everyone, but for most, this will be a film that provides some irresistible laughs while reminding them that the real joke is the way we’ve come to consume each other the way we do our products.