It’s been a long time coming, but good things come to those who wait, and DON JON is definitely a good thing. We’ve watched Joseph Gordon-Levitt transform from the young Tommy Solomon on “3rd Rock from the Sun” into a first-rate film actor with stellar turns in films like “50/50", “Hesher”, “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises”. For the past few years, Gordon-Levitt has also transitioned into filmmaking with HitRECord, a collaborative cooperative where artists of all kinds are invited to contribute their work to the website whereupon the HitRECord community collaboratively edits, builds upon, develops and remixes each others work to create finished works such as short films, music videos, animations, etc. And now, with his own feature directorial/writing debut of DON JON, “HitRECord Joe” himself shows the world that he is a confident and authoritative writer and director with a keen visual and thematic eye, and superlative storytelling skills.
The title of the film alone transports the mind that famous fictional Spanish libertine, Don Juan, a wanton womanizer whose exploits lead him to comedy and tragedy, a descent into hell, and ascent into heaven thanks to a pure, redemptive love. Now here, in the 21st century, we have DON JON; a “hero” filled with swagger , charm and braggadocios masculinity whose personal mantra of objectifying priorities is “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.” Originally titled “Don Jon’s Addiction” on its debut at Sundance, the title was changed due to the negative connotations the word “addiction” bodes, yet for DON JON, those 8 items on his checklist of life certainly do qualify as addictions once we see the man in action.
When we first meet Jon, we are struck by his chiseled physique, his meticulous almost germaphobic nature in manner of dress, personal hygiene, and housekeeping. A bartender at a local club, nights off find him with item #6 on Jon’s list, his best friends Bobby and Danny, as they collectively work on item #7, “girls”. All bets are off as Jon makes his mark and moves in for the kill, always ending in a successful, if unsatisfying conquest. Seems that as much as Jon likes his girls and the easy pickings, the only thing that satisfies his machismo libido is watching porn. But then he meets Barbara Sugarman.
Talk about “the lady in red!” A looker, a stunner, she is the unattainable. She turns Jon down flat which just makes her even more desirable. But in that moment of rejection, Jon also turns from being the hunter into the hunted and the thematic gender tables are turned . And it seems Barbara has her own addictions - control, money, prestige, and an utter lack of consideration or appreciation for anyone or anything but herself. And she doesn’t want Jon to watch porn.
While Jon believes his relationship with Barbara to be one of maturity and true love, he fights an internal battle of compromise and self-sacrifice as he tries to satisfy Barbara as well as his mother (who wants him married and giving her grandkids), while finding common ground with his equally macho father, while his sister Monica quietly observes all. And through it all he honors God and repents for his sins on a weekly basis. But then something happens; maybe it’s even a sign from God. Jon meets Esther, an older woman in his college night-school class. She gives him a porn movie, and then.....
Joseph Gordon-Levitt amazes. He is chameleonic as an actor, not just physically, but emotionally. One minute he's Hesher, the next as the once perceived heir apparent to the cowl of Batman, or even better still, the mentally challenged Chris Pratt in “The Lookout” or staring at his aged self in the form of Bruce Willis in “Looper.” His performances are always solid, strong, defining and even if the role is supporting, beyond standout. The cutting precision that he gives DON JON is mesmerizing. Gordon-Levitt makes it impossible to turn away from his performance and while his presence commands the screen, the charm and sincerity that he exudes is embracing to his fellow actors in a shared scene. Directing himself, he is fearless as he pushes the camera in to close-ups on his face and eyes during mind-numbing masturbating escapism scenes that leave th audience as spent as Jon. We see the endorphins spring to life through his eyes as DON JON becomes immersed in porn.
Key is Gordon-Levitt’s strong attention to Jon’s physical appearance and demeanor, making him crisp, clean, razor-edged in manner, look and lifestyle. He even has great posture when sitting at his computer watching porn and masturbating! DON JON as a character has a propriety of self that is so common among the Jersey/Brooklyn guys of that age, but you like it. You like seeing someone who takes as much pride in their ride as in their home and in their appearance. Stereotypical? Yes. But by ratcheting it up several notches, Gordon-Levitt gives it all a satiric touch that is not only hilarious, but welcoming and lovable.
There is not a minute that you don't believe Tony Danza and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as father and son. The chemistry is pure, kinetic and real. They are fantastic feeding on each other, raising the bar with every exchange. As for Danza himself - a genuine delight. This is like a second-act of life breakout performance! Absolutely riotous! Glenne Headly is hilarious perfection as the marriage/grandchild obsessed Angela. Nailing the persona perfectly, this Italian-Catholic mother is as smothering as any Jewish mother, providing Headly with just as much fodder for character performance. Headly rolls with it all to grand effect.
It’s easy to see that Scarlett Johansson relishes the role of Barbara Sugarman. She oozes sex and attitude at every turn. But the most significant aspect of her performance, as well as with Headley and Gordon-Levitt, is the Jersey/NY accent. Perfection! But the scene stealer is Brie Larson as Jon’s sister Monica. Not a word throughout the entire film until the last 15 minutes when she opens her mouth and speaks. Awesome. Her timing throughout is impeccable as her facial expressions are priceless commentary, showcased even further thanks to Gordon-Levitt’s visual eye. He knows his pacing. He knows his framing. And uses it to best advantage with Larson.
But then we have Julianne Moore. Ethereal delight. The anti-thesis of the character she recently played in The English Teacher as the goody-goody school teacher who has an affair with her former student, a young Michael Angarano, here she is the worldly, yet sad, Esther, bringing "life" into DON JON's world which, ironically, breathes similarly to that in his parents' home. Gordon-Levitt and Moore have a warm, wonderful chemistry that is believable from that first moment on campus. Moore is luminous and thankfully, Gordon-Levitt didn't soften the lensing of her. She looks real, like she does in person, and not air-brushed to porcelain perfection as in L’oreal cosmetic commercials.
From a story standpoint, the thematic elements are strong enough that Gordon-Levitt could have written this without the pornography and made a sweet rom com. Instead, he amps things up with a tacitly salacious commentary on the lack of intimacy in society and relationships, adds in some on the nose clips of the advertising onslaught of sex in tv, film, online, print and billboard, including some delicious tongue-in-cheek cameos by Channing Tatum, Anne Hathaway, Meagan Good and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Characters are all relatable and/or identifiable and the tonal and thematic blend of family, generational differences, public appearance vs private persona, religion and relationships, while in some instances pushed to the extreme for tonal effect, are all accessible to the average movie-goer. There is nothing highbrow or artsy about what Gordon-Levitt is doing. There is a grounded sincerity and affection that breeds laughter through a cleverly written and designed film.
But where Gordon-Levitt excels with DON JON is in the design and technical execution of the film. Meghan Rogers' production design is meticulous precision with each set and space so spot on that you know exactly which character belongs in the space and/or to whom it belongs. Lensing is razor-edged with rapier visual crispness in Thomas Kloss' cinematography, metaphorically carrying the self-image and precision of DON JON through the tonal bandwidth of the film. Imagery is slick and edgy with calculated angular lensing that skews reality, diverts and deflects attention to specific notes within the story, disassociates from human contact and intimacy and adds at times a skewed voyeuristic touch that at all times has a sincere undertone. The gloss of DON JON's apartment and the club is beautiful. There is depth to the lighting. Club brings in saturated color that is beautiful and jaw-dropping, even seductive, with a noir edging to it. DON JON's parents' home is warm, inviting, old world touches. Very generational and rooted in family and tradition. There is not an element to DON JON that is overlooked.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is no flash in the pan as a writer or director. There is a confidence to the performance, and more importantly, to the production as a whole. There is never an uncertain or unwavering moment within the visuals, editing or performances.
A slick, smart, sexy and funny comedy, DON JON, and HitRECord Joe, are hits on all counts!
Written and Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza,
Glenne Headly, Brie Larson