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Don Jon

Don Jon

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Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

There’s that joke that goes people who say they don’t masturbate are either lying or dead. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon, attempts to sell itself as a penetrating look at pornography addiction but instead turns out to be nothing more than a conventional Hollywood romantic-comedy hidden under a torrent of used Kleenex.

Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) is a lothario who regularly attracts and picks up hot women, earning him the nickname “Don” Jon from his envious friends. But while Jon enjoys banging these chicks, nothing gets him off like looking at porn. In a voiceover, Martello explains that sex with a real girl offers little more than some making out, some limited head and then missionary-only intercourse. Meanwhile, the girls of PornHub.com indulge all his fantasies where he can tap that ass from behind or watch those titties jiggle in his face during some cowgirl. He’s hooked and even the hottest girls can’t match the pleasure he gets while jacking it to some porno. While we get the point almost immediately, Don Jon repeats the above scenario over and over again as Gordon-Levitt gleefully intones his character’s predilection for onanism.

Being a Hollywood movie, things are bound to change for old Jon. He soon meets two women that make him realize (on varying levels) that the ladies are more than sex objects and that true pleasure comes when you truly love someone (hence: making love). First, he falls for Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a straitlaced, acquisitive woman who is repulsed when she learns of his porn habit, forcing him to swear off masturbation as she holds sex over his head to get what she wants. Dripping with the Jersey a la Adriana La Cerva, Barbara emasculates Jon by forcing him to take classes (he’s a bartender) and basically renounce every other aspect of his life. It doesn’t take long for Jon’s porn addiction to reappear and soon enough Barbara is out the door, hammering home that the girls on the web are simply better than what you can get in real life.

Soon after he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), written in as the sage, older woman who is more or less a deus ex machina to set Jon on the path to love. She’s the silver lining to Don Jon’s “After School Special” message: that one won’t really enjoy sex until he begins to consider his partner’s needs as well. Otherwise, women are simply props and not that much different than his hand. Well, duh, but Don Jon treats this news as if it’s a Big Life Realization™.

Moore is fine as Esther, but the fact that she doesn’t sound like she’s from New Jersey underlines an even bigger problem with Don Jon. Gordon-Levitt is an excellent actor, but his Jon plays like a typecast of an Italian-American that could have stepped out of De Palma’s Wise Guys or Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam. Startling and funny at first, Jon’s Guido accent presents a problematic look at working-class Italians from New Jersey, reinforcing stereotypes of that population as comedy. Don Jon blames its protagonist’s porn addiction on his Catholic upbringing and the scenes when Jon goes home are rife with these knotty moments.

Featuring Tony Danza and Glenne Headley as his parents, Jon’s family comes off as a grotesque caricature of the Machimist tradition, down to the white wife beater and sports blaring on the television during dinner conversation. When Jon brings the smoking hot Barbara home for the first time, I was surprised that Gordon-Levitt didn’t draw a cartoon over Danza’s face where his eyes bulge out, his tongue rolls down and smoke shoots out of his ears. Yeah, maybe Gordon-Levitt thinks he’s mining deep territory with the whole virgin-whore conundrum, but it has been done to death in the past.

Brie Larson, so good in Short Term 12, appears as Jon’s sister who doesn’t look up from her cell in her every scene before delivering the film’s one line of wisdom Silent Bob style. This compounds all of Don Jon’s problems: it refuses to face the real issues of porn addiction and when it does, it feels like a warmed-over lesson rather than anything really revelatory.

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