Written by Bryan M Zarpentine
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (hereafter referred to as JGL) has long been one of the most beloved and admired young actors in Hollywood. He’s done it all. We’ve seen him be funny, genuine, flawed, romantic, and heroic in a countless number of memorable roles. Now he tries his hand at writing and directing, as well as starring, in the new movie Don Jon. Although JGL is able to display plenty of potential as a filmmaker working from behind the camera, his directorial debut is largely a failure. Don Jon starts promising and ends strong, but the entire middle part of the movie is an insufferable parade of stereotypes, poor dialogue, and characters that no one has reason to care about, and at times it feels like this parade of awfulness is never going to end.
The movie revolves around and is narrated by Jon, who is played by JGL. Jon is your typical late 20’s/early 30’s Italian-American living in New Jersey. He cares only about his friends, family, church, apartment, car, and a few other things, but with the slight caveat that he is also a porn addict, although that exact term is never used. Jon is also quite the ladies man, regularly going home with beautiful women in what we can only assume is an endless string of shallow one-night stands. Don Jon tells the story of how Jon’s addiction to porn catches up with him just when he seemed to be growing up and getting his life together.
The movie begins with one of the oddest opening sequences ever, so much so that it’s hard to tell when the studio logos end and the movie starts. After a montage of random clips from various forms of pop culture over the past two decades, Jon jumps in with a voiceover explaining his great love and admiration for porn in great detail. This voiceover, like so many others throughout the movie, is accompanied with a fast-moving montage of actual pornographic movies. While this is obviously a necessary tactic to establish the character’s love and obsession with porn, the audience is bombarded with grotesque pornographic images on far too many occasions, and because clips like this are repeated throughout the movie, it simply becomes too much.
Once Jon’s love for porn is established, the film moves out of his bedroom and into a nightclub, where we meet Jon’s two closest friends, Bobby, who is played by Rob Brown, and Danny, who is played by Jeremy Luke. The trio is quite entertaining, as they scour the dance floor for women, despite the fact that they are stereotypically sleazy and misogynistic. It’s here that Jon first lays his eyes on a beautiful nightclub patron named Barbara, who is played by Scarlett Johansson. Although she resists his initial advances, Jon doesn’t give up going after Barbara, realizing that she is special, and that being with her will take some work, and means going off in a different direction than the life he’s currently built for himself.
With a little hard work and some timely lying, Jon works his way into Barbara’s good graces, and the two get into a relationship. From there, the movie follows the development of their relationship, as well as Jon’s continued addiction to porn through the lens of his daily and weekly routines. Much of the movie is a continuous cycle of Jon looking at porn, making his bed, doing household chores, going to the gym, having road rage, going to church, confessing his sins regarding porn and sex to a priest, and going to family dinners at his parent’s house. While this is a good method to measure the growth of the relationship between Jon and Barbara, as well as a clever way to follow a character whose life is all about routine, this repetition of the same events in the same places hearing the same things gets tiresome after a while, as the plot just moves in circles barely inching forward, causing a movie that’s not that long to drag on and become boring and monotonous.
Even beyond the tiresome and disinteresting plot, the biggest problem Don Jon has is its stereotypical characters. Jon, Barbara, and nearly all of their friends are the exact stereotype you expect to see from young people from New Jersey: loud, obnoxious, and arrogant. They all have the thick and recognizable accents, and the relationships they form all seem shallow and superficial. Even Jon’s family is full of stereotypes. There is the apathetic sister, who is played by Brie Larson; the sweet but hysterical mother, who is played by Glenne Headly; and the loudmouth and controlling father, who is played by Tony Danza. If the stereotypes aren’t bad enough, they’re made worse by the fact they are repeated time and time again, as the movie continues to repeat itself with Jon’s trips to the gym, church, and family dinners, among other places.
One of the few characters in Don Jon that isn’t an obvious stereotype is Esther, a middle-aged woman Jon meets at night school, who is played by Julianne Moore. Jon and Esther begin to form a unique friendship, which is the most intriguing part of the film. However, the relationship is too slow to develop and doesn’t appear to be important until late in the movie. Ultimately, the relationship between Jon and Esther leads to a meaningful lesson at the conclusion of the story, but by the time that happens, it’s too late. By then, the redundancy of the movie and the lack of sympathy for the main character make it nearly impossible to care about the conclusion of the movie, which would have been powerful had the middle part of the movie held up better.
In his first endeavor as a writer, JGL falls flat on his face. He deserves some credit, as it was a risky move to write his first screenplay about a character with an addiction to porn, but the writing is neither entertaining nor meaningful. The plot is weak and focuses too much on the actual porn addiction and not enough on its impact on Jon’s life, which causes the audience to become disinterested. The dialogue in the first few scenes is quick and witty, and the writing towards the end of the movie is sentimental and genuine, but there is a huge void in the middle of the film, during which the dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. JGL’s writing doesn’t allow for the characters to break free from their stereotypes, which prevents them from becoming both relatable and like-able, and also allows the few comical and endearing moments to be lost among-st all the stereotypes.
As a director, JGL shows off a great deal of promise in Don Jon. There are a few clichéd shots, which can be expected from a first-time director, but he also brings a unique viewpoint and clearly has a good eye for directing, and perhaps more importantly, a good idea of what he wants. In some ways, it helps that he’s also playing the lead part in addition to directing, because he’s such an accomplished actor. He also gives off the impression that he could handle the responsibilities of director, and do a fine job, even if he weren’t also acting in the film.
Despite the shortcomings in writing, Don Jon is held up to a certain degree by the acting of an accomplished cast, specifically Johansson and Moore. While Johansson doesn’t have a terribly difficult role, it’s a different role from any she’s ever played before, and it’s one she seems to fit perfectly. Hearing her New Jersey accent is a bit jarring at first, but the audience will eventually get used to it and it will seem more natural. More importantly, Johansson has the beauty, confidence, and assertiveness to pull off her role. In most scenes, her performance outshines JGL by far, as even in a bad movie she’s able to remind us of her immense talent.
As for Moore, she takes on a more challenging role, as her character is sparsely seen for much of the movie. However, when she’s called upon for intense and emotional scenes, she pulls them off, which saves Don Jon from being a total disaster. Moore’s performance is the only thing that brings the movie together at the end. She ensures that the movie ends strong and the story wraps up in a satisfying way. Without Moore’s brilliance at the end, JGL would not have been able to pull off his directorial debut, as Moore makes the movie acceptable, despite its assortment of shortcomings.
When all is said and done, JGL and Don Jon deserve two out of five stars. A promising start and a good ending aren’t enough to make up for a terrible middle. The movie is supposed to be a romantic comedy, but there’s not all that much comedy, and there’s even less romance. It’s a bit erotic, but only in ways that are disgusting or annoying. The plot is largely unappealing, and the characters are superficial, annoying, and stereotypical. For large stretches, the movie plays like a bad sex-education video for immature and sex-obsessed men, and is not all that entertaining. JGL is bailed out by good performances by his two leading ladies, Johansson and Moore, and while he shows good promise as a director, Don Jon puts him in a hole as far as his career as a director is concerned.
Actors:Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza
Run Time:1 hour 30 minutes
Pros: Cast is well put together and headlined by quality performances by Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore; promising directorial debut by Joseph Gordon-Levitt; engaging start and strong ending.
Cons: Too many annoying stereotypes of Italian-Americans and people with New Jersey accents; too many grotesque clips of actual porn; poor dialogue and bad characters; disinteresting plot that is monotonous and redundant.