Don Jon: JGL’s film on the trials and tribulations of a porn addict
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first feature as a writer-director-performer is getting some high praise from critics across North America. The visual style of Don Jon (2103) (formerly titled Don Jon’s Addiction) is certainly unconventional and entertaining ( but isn’t original either) while the film’s commentary on pornography is incoherent at best. However, Don Jon is not a great film but a fairly entertaining debut for JGL.
American cinema has a great tradition of writer-director-performers that go back as far as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the silent film era, Chaplin in the forties and fifties, then Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, and Albert Brooks. There are of course many others I’m missing, in and outside the comedy genre, but a few of those writer-director-performers have created great works (The General (1926), City Lights (1931), The Ladies Man (1962), and Modern Romance (1981)). JGL is entering that tradition. If Don Jon is any indication of what this writer-director-performer is capable of then we should expect some good work in the future.
JGL’s debut film has something a lot of Hollywood movies lack these days which is a distinct vision. Don Jon’s form is about repetition: of ideas, images, and sounds. Repetition but also about routine and habits, some good and some bad. Jon’s vice is watching an excessive amount of porn on a daily basis to the point where he prefers masturbation to sexual intercourse with women.
Repetition can easily become boring if not used in a novel way. For Don Jon, repetition is used to move the narrative forward. Like the way everyone repeats their activities week to week, we see Jon repeat his gym workouts, housekeeping, car-driving, family and church visits, and his nights at the bar. But, once we are introduced to the titillating Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson) we see how Jon’s routine has become altered by her presence in his life; the avid porn-watching is still present but Jon has to be secretive now that he has a steady girlfriend that sleeps with him seven times a week.
JGL then uses repetition to demonstrate effects of this relationship on Jon which eventually falls apart once Barbara looks at his Internet history. While the story could have become more serious but JGL’s cutting and use of music and sounds keeps the audience from getting heavily invested into the emotions of the main character. There is one tender moment where JGL (the director) goes to handheld and uses longer takes which breaks up the fast-paced decoupage of the film and effectively pulls us into the scene. But, this only lasts for a short time until the film is back into its fast-paced montages of Jon’s routine.
The film doesn’t work when you think about what it’s saying about pornography, relationships, love, and sex because it fails to pick a side on the issue. Jon hides his love of porn from Barbara because she finds it repulsive. So watching porn in the film is obviously coded as bad (and harmless) at the same time because Jon is in fact a good boyfriend to her. He makes compromises to make her happy and treats her well; taking her out on dates, hanging out with her family, going to night class for her, watching boring rom-coms for her, and only watching porn when she isn’t in the next room. Watching porn hasn’t made him into a lifeless and emotionally dead man (like Brandon in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), a film about a man so addicted to porn/sex he can’t relate properly to anyone else) but has merely made sexual intercourse less enjoyable for him. The film works when there’s funny music playing, fast-paced montages, and characters that are acting out extreme abstractions of certain types of men that spend too much time at night clubs. However, the overall commentary on pornography is undecided which makes the film shallow.
I hope to see some better films from this director in the near future but I would like to see JGL make some where he’s not trying to entertain everyone but take a definitive stance on an issue.