[Review] - Don Jon

Courtesy of HitRecord Films
Obviously, the hook here is porn. But, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt has made clear in interviews, his directorial debut is meant more to be a cultural examination of the unrealistic expectations generated by the media, for both genders. Body image, gender roles and sexual repression are all satirically under the microscope in a solid piece of film making, from the script up. It's not perfect, but it exudes a confidence that first time filmmakers rarely are capable of. There is a certainly of intent, a very obvious and specific vision that Levitt had when putting the film together. Many filmmakers take years to find a voice and style of their own, but Levitt, perhaps by benefit of having been a child actor, and grown up around the industry, has his style down. Like his Don, he knows what's good at, plays to his strengths, and works through his flaws as best he can.

And, there is porn.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that are sorry for these and all the sins of their past life.

The set up is simple: Don watches too much porn, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) watches too many romantic comedies. Both have unrealistic expectations about what a relationship should be. For Barbara, it's a complete manipulation of the male into the woman's ideal version of him. For Don, it's about the lack of creative theatricality in love making. Both are born out of a cultural direction given to them by a gender focused media influence. Porn is made for primarily for men, romantic comedies are made primary for women. Women are meant to be young and slim and sexy and enticing. Men are meant to be handsome and big and strong and hearty. Women wear tight dresses, men wear nice suits or arm exposing muscle shirts. Romance is meant to be grand gestures and moments of extreme emotion. This is the world we live in, the sorts of people we are expected to be by others.

Levitt isn't taping into anything new with this observation. He does bring his own unique sense of humour to the idea though, and the strength of the film is drawn from this humour. The quick, successive cuts, break routine into laid bare elements, and common camera angles juxtapose competing images (especially Don's weekly confession compared to his daily masturbation sessions). The humour saves a very simple thesis, and an idea that doesn't give equal measure to all characters. The film has been called as sexist as the media it mocks, and that stems largely from the fact that the female characters aren't investigated. Don is the focus, Don is the one whose awareness grows over the course of the film. While both he and Barbara start off as cold, calculating and unaware as each other, Don grows out of this behaviour, while Barbara is left a hard, oblivious shrew (accentuated all the both by Don's comparative warmth).

Additionally, Julianne Moore's Esther is an emotionally fragile women whose life is given new life once she begins a new romantic relationship. This message isn't any different than the same ideas being mocked by the rest of the film, but with non of the self awareness. Moore does an great job with the character, easily the most balanced and normal character of the film, she languishes throughout the first half with what seems like a purposeless role, only to rise in relevancy in the third act. But because she is introduced so weakly, and explained so late, the character seems as if she's from another film altogether. She is little more than Don's vehicle to normalcy, except that normalcy in this instance means little more than arranging to mean the conventions that were being lambasted so well in the first act. It's a disappointing bit of slippage, but is disguised well by the film remaining likable from beginning to end.

The best scene of the film, the one that proves Levitt's point the best, is a scene at his weekly dinner with his parents (the enjoyable Tony Danza and Glenne Headly), where father and son are mesmerised by a Carl's Jr. ad, in which a bikini clad lady-person grinds suggestively in general proximity to a cheeseburger. When he appeared to hock the film on Craig Ferguson, Ferguson suggested that this sort of advertising is worse than the pornography, because at least the porn is honest in it's intent. It's a fair point. The porn in the film is never explotative; Don uses it as a tool, or a crutch, to overcome his emotional shortcomings. The advertising and everyday sort of bombardment, including the rom-coms, are exploitative, a specific and malicious kind of manipulation that reaches a far greater audience and does much worse damage on a regular basis than porn ever could.

My favourite character in the film is Don's sister Monica, played by Brie Larson. Monica spends the entire film silent, and never seen looking anywhere but into her phone. She eventually, like most purposefully silent characters, speaks briefly but honest and cuttingly at the end of the film, having seen the truth of thing through their outsider's perspective. But the rest of her role highlights yet another manipulation by the modern culture, an affliction of the youth and twenty somethings: the phone. Don uses his phone to further his addition and continue his downward spiral, but Monica is so utterly absorbed into the private world that exists on her screen, that everything else is secondary. Church, food, conversation, all pass by her as if shades in some Greek underworld, while her focus is on this invisible universe in the palm of her hand. While Don and Barbara, older and a product of the previous influences, have their concepts of gender roles perverted by the media, Monica is in for so much worse. Their entire identities, because of the rise of social media, are becoming defined by virtual friends, a constant response system, over sharing and instant gratification that transcends even what Don experiences from his porn.

It's telling that Monica, absorbed in a world where everything gets thrown against the wall and very few things stick, is able to call both Don and Barbara out on their behaviours. I'm not saying youths in the real world are immune to media influence, just the opposite, they are even more in danger, but within the confines of the film, her phone protects her from everything that has perverted Don and Barbara's lives. Monica is distant, distracted and more than a little rude, but she's honest. The others are stuck looking through permanent beer goggles.

Don Jon makes me excited about Levitt as a filmmaker in a way I haven't been excited over someone new since... I don't know, probably Rian Johnson, who it's no coincidence is a friend and influence on Levitt. Debuts are rarely this strong, and follow ups rarely stronger, but I feel so long as Levitt remains honest with his subject matter, and tries to keep his satirical edge up throughout, he'll continue to be successful.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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