Don Jon’s Appeal is Only Skin Deep

(ScreenCrush)Clean the apartment. Gym. Club. Sex. Porn. Church. Family Dinner. Repeat. This is the first half of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon,” his feature film directorial debut. JGL takes the interesting premise of a superficial guy who enjoys porn more than sex—for its ability to let him escape—and cranks that up to eleven. He sets the scene in New Jersey with thick accents, excessive hair product, muscles and tight dresses only to emphasize the sexual nature of the film with quick cuts of porn and sex with random girls he finds at the clubs.

With this heightened tempo and in-your-face attitude, “Don Jon” fails to add depth. JGL touches on numerous ideas, but never follows through. Jon (JGL) finds solace in his porn, unable to find a satisfying connection with the women he beds. His world consists of façades. He cleans his apartment vigorously, maintains a relationship with his family and treats his body like the church he visits weekly. But if you were to look past this surface, the person underneath is empty.

C+Jon ends up finding the “dime”—a perfect 10 on the hotness scale—in Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a woman equally obsessed with façades. Her vice manifests in the form of an idealized man perpetrated by the romantic comedy hero. She strives to mold Jon into that man, while he strives to prove he has feelings for this vain, controlling woman.

In order to further promote the superficiality of the film, JGL introduces Jon’s family, which is led by football-loving horndog Jon Sr. (Tony Danza). While hilarious, the family dinners lack any subtlety, displaying the source of Jon’s outlook on women from his father’s misogynistic tendencies. We also get a glimpse at how his mother’s (Glenne Headly) ideals mirror those of his girlfriend.

Once Julianne Moore enters the story as Esther, an emotional wreck in Jon’s night class, the story is in dire need of a change in tone and style. Here, JGL finally takes a step back from the hyper-sexualized setting and begins cracking Jon’s shell of vanity, but it’s a baby step. Jon continues denying any flaws in his lifestyle before changing on a whim. His goals and choices take an uncharacteristic quick turn that breaks from his path. (I’m being vague to avoid a small spoiler.) His method for choosing a partner changes course without much provocation.

From there, Jon’s story takes the predictable turn for the better, but the character’s progression feels as inorganic as the rest of the film. JGL writes his protagonist with a promising opening that falls flat once the movie concludes. “Don Jon” closes without a true statement about the porn industry or idealized lives portrayed on screen—cinematic or pornographic. Instead, the film resigns itself to a character-driven finale, with Jon discovering himself. “Don Jon” shows promise for future JGL-penned films, but his style needs to be matched by substance.

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