All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Buff and groomed to the North Jersey max in snug-fitting wifebeaters and T-shirts, Jon is a player who has his life in order and his priorities straight. He’ll rattle them off for you — his body, his pad, his ride, his boys, his girls, his faith, his family. Each neatly fits in Jon’s daily existence as a bartender who spends his nights off in pickup bars.
Cute and forward, he has no trouble finding sex partners, and his weekly confession to his pastor usually tallies how many times Jon had intercourse out of wedlock and how many times he masturbated while watching porn.
Porn is Jon’s addiction and downfall. He says he cannot relate to the series of live women in his life the way he can to pictures of others having sex onscreen. “I lose myself in the act of having an orgasm,” Jon reports. Meanwhile, he says his required “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” between reps as he pumps his muscles during ubiquitous visits to the gym.
As portrayed by Joseph Gordon Levitt in “Don Jon,” a movie he wrote and directed, Jon is likeable and forgiven by the audience for his trespasses as easily as he is pardoned by his priest.
Jon’s a happy guy. His lifestyle suits him. He has most of what he thinks he needs. His mother disagrees. At every Sunday dinner, she serves macs in red gravy and tells Jon she wants him to meet a girl and get married so she can have grandchildren. It doesn’t matter than Jon’s sister is also present, sitting silently and staring at her smart phone as her family had their conversation around her. Jon is charged with the burden of creating grandchildren for his Mom.
“Don Jon” exists mostly on the surface. It handily acquaints you with Jon’s routine and invites you in his world, but that world, though enjoyed, is enjoyed by rote. Jon never varies, and while he is content with his lot, Levitt’s audience can get restless waiting for some depth or some reason to be watching Jon and his guys rating women and moving in for their conquest in ways that are more smarmy than charming. But then this is North Jersey were talking about, and everyone you meet accepts Jon’s precepts and lives pretty much the same way he does.
It takes a while for Levitt, the author and director, to allow change to occur. Like Jon is satisfied with his life, Levitt seems to think scenes of Jon talking macho nonsense with his father, played in his wifebeater by Tony Danza, and hanging out with his “boys,” a pufferbelly who thinks or pretends to think he’s hotter than he is and a handsome black guy who is the real catch of the trio, are enough to entertain.
He’s wrong. Things begin to get and remain tiresome.
Then two things happen. Jon meets two women almost simultaneously. One is a “10” or higher on the scale Jon and his buddies use to estimate a woman’s value as she enters the bar. The other is a widow who lost her husband and son in a car accident the previous year. Like Jon, she is taking business courses at night school to give herself more opportunities. When Jon first sees her, she is crying at the entrance doorway to a college building. Crying, she explains, is something she does a lot.
The two women shake Jon’s existence. He is attracted to the “10” in ways she is not to most of his pickups. She fascinates him because she won’t go to bed or even to second base until she is assured something real is going on and because she challenges him and makes fun of him in ways most girls do not. Probably because they know Jon is the game for a fast score and has no intention of having a relationship.
With Barbara, played by coy urban savvy by Scarlett Johansson, North Jersey accent firmly intact, Jon is thrown a little off base. She is more in command than he is. She determines whether sex will take place and what happens during it. Not that she holds back much, as “Don Jon” reveals.
Barbara wants to change Jon, and he likes her enough, wants to have a genuine relationship with her enough, to let her do it. His mother is more than pleased. His father takes pride that his son scored such a fox.
Then porn enters the picture. Barbara catches Jon getting off on one of his film fantasies. She insists he never watch it again.
The wedge goes in two ways. Barbara is on the prowl, looking at browser histories Jon doesn’t know exist, to see whether he’s cheating vicariously.
Jon tries. He even amazes his priest by reporting no masturbation one week and getting half his usual “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” for his abstinence. But Barbara’s vigilance is unending and oppressive. Her stance on porn, it turns out, will be the first of her proscriptions. She also object to Jon cleaning his house, which he does with fierce abandon, because she considers the behavior feminine.
Little about Jon is feminine. If anything, Levitt has modeled his character as the most typical sports-loving, womanizing, nightlife-enjoying stud North Jersey can produce. He is harder and more realistic that John Travolta’s Tony Manero of Brooklyn. He is guy’s guy and a ladies’ man. Except he prefers masturbating to porn over flesh-and-blood sex.
Enter the older woman, played by Julianne Moore with her knack for creating characters from real life. Levitt is playing a type he crafted for himself. He does it well, but he’s playing a game, and like Jon doesn’t give of himself during sex with a partner, Levitt stays true to form rather than showing his human side. Jon is a creation. Moore’s Esther is a living, breathing being who has experienced lots of life and is having a messy time of it when she and Jon meet, but who is self-sufficient and mature in ways Jon has yet to discover.
Esther only wants to be friends and classmates with Jon. She finds him cute. Who wouldn’t find Joseph Gordon Levitt, as himself or in any guise, cute? But she thinks of him as a boy while her taste runs more towards more settled men.
Esther, the older woman, listens to Jon as he talks of Barbara and other matters. She worries than he derives more visceral pleasure from passive sex than from another human’s immediate presence.
Of course, something happens with Esther. His encounters with her and the strangling Barbara affect him, but to what extent is unknown.
“Don Jon” becomes a story of someone rocked out of pleasurable and complacent satisfaction by the idea there may be something better or deeper. The movie suggests what depth can be more than showing it. Levitt enjoys North Jersey stereotypes more than he cares to move or intensify his story. Jon is, however, enlightened and while his world may not widen, it has had some new ideas introduced in it.
Joseph Gordon Levitt acts, directs, and writes well. “Don Jon” takes a long time to become involving, but Levitt, the actor seems to like putting himself in roles no other director will give him. With Jon, he needed to write in and display a few more facets. Levitt defines Jon in the beginning of the film and, even though the character grows, Levitt’s performance doesn’t. He sticks with the staples. If Jon changes something, like the way he grooms his hair, it’s more because he hasn’t changed something Esther did than because he wants to alter something about himself and makes a conscious decision to do it.
Scarlett Johansson loses herself is Barbara. Johansson, who can easily play femmes fatales and does so in a way in “Don Jon,” proves over and over again her capacity to realize a wide variety of people and characters. Her Barbara is right off of the streets of their town, and Johansson plays her less by the numbers than Levitt plays Jon or Danza plays Jon’s father. As with Moore, Johansson shows a human side, and she is not afraid to convey it when Barbara’s character becomes less attractive than her outer appearance.
Julianne Moore goes deftly from leads to supports. She is an actress who has not hit the age wall as hard as some others because she takes so many parts and like a good hitter in baseball, keys her characters where they’re pitched. Esther is the one character with whom Jon can relax and, thanks to Moore, she provides comfort for the audience too. Unlike others who advise or take an interest in Jon, Moore has a different and broader range of experience. She is not a woman you can look at and say, “North Jersey.” She has warmth and ease no one else in “Don Jon” or in Jon’s existence has. Moore is not only welcome as a character but as a presence.
Tony Danza and Glenne Headly, as Tony’s parents fill the bill well. They linger a bit in stereotype, Danza more than Headly, but they are authentic in terms of the movie, and you can see how Jon spawned from them. The sleeper performance is by Brie Larson, as Jon’ sister, Monica. In dinner scene after dinner scene, church scene after church scene, Monica sits almost silent, staring into space or communing with her telephone the way her brother does with pornhub.com. Larson is so natural. She doesn’t act. She just occupies Monica’s place at the table or in the pew and establishes a presence while staying virtually invisible. Of course, when Monica speaks at dinner, her single line is one of the most insightful and important of the movie. Good job, Brie.