Saturday, September 28, 2013

GTL + Porn: "Don Jon" wise, funny, and assured with a filthy R-rating


Don Jon (2013)
90 min., rated R.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has already proven himself to be one of the most appealing actors working today, turning in great, eclectic work. Now, he's a triple threat, putting himself on the map as writer, director, and star of his bracing, self-assured directorial debut "Don Jon." His first film may penetrate the crippling addiction to porn, but it's more audacious than that. It's about the dichotomy of sex and love represented none too well in both porn and idealistic Hollywood movies and comes from the potentially sleazy point-of-view of a libidinous, egotistical guido who could be the missing cast member from MTV's "Jersey Shore."

Gordon-Levitt positions himself as the lead, Jon (nicknamed Don Jon), a slick, slick-haired New Jersey lothario who works as a bartender. His simple, routine life can be narrowed down to eight things — his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and . . . his porn. Yes, when he's not lifting at the gym and reciting his prayers during reps, angrily driving to get to church for confession, sitting at the dinner table for pasta dinners in his wife beater with his Italian-American family—parents Jon Sr. (Tony Danza) and Angela (Glenne Headly), and bored sister Monica (Brie Larson) who's forever on her phone—and scoring conquests every night at the clubs where he rates girls with his two buddies, Jon sits in front of his laptop and gets off to Internet porn. He says he prefers porn over the real thing in the bedroom because he loses himself in it, but doing it up to twenty times a day points to addiction (and costs him a slew of Hail Marys). Then one night, from across the bar, Jon meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a gum-chewing Jersey "dime" in a red dress. On their first date, she forces him to go to a sappy romantic-comedy (Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum amusingly headline the fake "Special Someone"), and then wants them both to meet the other's friends and family. After a month as a couple and finally engaging in coitus, Barbara tries to change Jon by having him enrolled in night school. One thing she can't change is his proclivity for porn, until she walks in on him pleasuring himself and flips out. Can Jon rid porn from his life for good?

An impressive, independent-minded directorial bow, "Don Jon" practically announces a fresh voice behind the camera from the get-go with its zappy, propulsive editing rhythms and snappy, attention-grabbing visual choices. Gordon-Levitt utilizes voice-over narration and montages of our sex-driven culture, along with a graphic on-slaught of moaning, pelvic-thrusting porn clipsdevices which can be lazy crutches for first-time effortsbut they get the point across in a flitly paced fashion without coming off more repetitive. Originally "Don Jon's Addiction" at Sundance, the film had to have its porn-video shots trimmed down to secure an R but one wonders how much was actually cut. The MPAA must have been catching a nap when screening the finished product because it doesn't lose its nerve. It's transgressive and refreshing for a film, which, mind you, isn't getting a platform release but a wide release, that refuses to throw the covers on the topic of sex.

In front of the camera, Gordon-Levitt is so magnetic and shaded that he can even make a hypocritical, contradictory meathead, full of bravado, oddly endearing, and on the other side, he shows a keen eye for casting down the line. Johansson is terrific and full of gusto as Barbara, not only nailing the gum-smacking and "Joizey" accent with impressive accuracy but never broadly playing her as a stereotypically airheaded Jersey housewife-to-be. She's a full-bloodied person who means well and is just set in her ways, her values of love being romanticized, archaic, and skewed from what she sees in swoon-worthy Hollywood boy-meets-girl weepers. Barbara might even be a little entitled and shrewish when appalled that Jon enjoys cleaning his floors, telling him not to waste his time but to use her cleaning lady to do it. Surprisingly, there's never a stench of contemptible misogyny to how Barbara is written and played, and that's pretty remarkable in a movie about someone who's addicted to videos that objectify and degrade women. 

On the other side of the spectrum, Julianne Moore plays the middle-aged Esther, a kooky, forlorn peer in Jon's night class. The unlikely friendship they strike up would feel manufactured on paper, yes, but it plays more organically than expected. Little more than a plot device, Esther is drawn into an earthy, lovely, devastatingly real presence by Moore, the character's wisdom related to love being obvious but more realistic than Barbara's reasoning and pretty insightful to Jon. In supporting roles that spring to life no less, a hilariously loud Danza is fun to see as Jon's blustery father, especially if one remembers that he co-starred with his then-thirteen-year-old director in "Angels in the Outfield," and Headly is very charming as Angela, who just wants to see her son find Miss Right and give her grandchildren. As essentially mute, phone-glued sister Monica, Larson earns laughs without saying a word and then saves her voice-of-reason comments for later.

Further proving how far Gordon-Levitt's talent goes, his first shot isn't really an addiction drama or a feature film version of "True Life: I'm Addicted to Porn." Rather, it's an uncommonly smart and provocative American movie with something to say about finding two-sided love after being bred on the artificial expectations presented in romantic comedies and finding true intimacy during sex when one is consumed by the instant gratification of pornography. And hey, it's even sharply funny and addictively entertaining, even if some audiences going blind into this hard-R film will surely find discomfort in the subject matter and graphic nature. Filthy and boldly racy, "Don Jon" also has a wiseness and a sincere heart under its trousers.

Grade: B +

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