What would Don Juan, the libertine of literary legend, look like in 21st-century America? If you believe Don Jon, a curious writing-directing debut for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he’d be more into pornography than actual women.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Jon, a Jersey boy who follows a set routine: work out; masturbate to pornography; prowl the nightclubs for one-night stands; go to church to confess said sins; have a shouty pasta dinner with his family. (He also works as a bartender, but the movie doesn’t deal much with that.) The more time we spend with Jon, however, the more we realize how much pornography has come to dominate his life.
Don Jon eases into this as a comedy (it’s no Shame), with Gordon-Levitt hamming it up “Jersey Shore”-style, especially in his confessional voiceover. (He admits that the sound of the power button for his computer turns him on.) As director, Gordon-Levitt also favors quick edits and insert shots as punch lines, so that most of the porn clips we get are robbed of whatever erotic power they might have. During one of those family dinners, the movie even lampoons a fast-food commercial during a football game that features a bikini-clad model essentially making love to a codfish sandwich.
The picture shifts gears a bit with the arrival of Scarlett Johansson as Barbara, a “10” according to Don and his entourage. Barbara plays hard to get, turning Don Jon into something of a romantic comedy for its middle half hour or so. But can even a “10” compete with porn?
Casting Johansson is both part of the joke and crucial to the movie’s main concern.
Casting Johansson is both part of the joke and crucial to the movie’s main concern. What could pornography have over not just a live partner, but Hollywood’s reigning sex bomb? “Nothing else does it for me the same way,” Jon says about his habit. “I just f*&#in’ lose myself.”
It’s that last syllable that matters. Self. For as Don Jon goes on, we recognize that it isn’t what pornography offers its lead character, but rather what it doesn’t demand of him. When Jon watches porn there is no giving on his part; it’s all take. Technology has enabled this Don to do what the original Don Juan may have ultimately wanted: to be pleasured alone, giving nothing of himself.
This becomes more explicit when Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore), a flighty older woman taking the same night class. She catches Jon watching porn on his phone, which leads to an awkward, if frank, friendship. Soon Esther has prompted Jon to rethink not only porn, but his underlying assumptions about sex in general.
Moore’s character doesn’t entirely work; she’s too much of a stand-in for the picture’s own point of view. No matter how nimbly Moore delivers the dialogue, her words feel more like a thesis statement than an actual conversation.
Still, there are a few nice moments in which Don Jon speaks through action. The narrative is structured around Jon’s routines, including a repeated shot of him walking down the hallway of his gym on the way to the weight room. The last time we see him do this, though, he pauses at another door to watch a number of guys playing basketball. Rather than lifting weights alone, he joins them – a small gesture that speaks volumes within the cloistered little world in which he lives.