Words: Rob DeStefano
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Child stars. They make you want to break out in song, “I’m writing a letter to daddy!” Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? showcases two former actresses who have fallen victim to the Hollywood fame of their younger years, leaving them aged and at the mercy of unattainable dreams and disillusioned talent. Aside from reoccurring roles on “Dark Shadows” and “Roseanne,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt became known at age fourteen during the extended run of TV’s “3rd Rock from the Sun.” He then went on to gain leading man status in films like Brick, 50/50, and Looper. Now at thirty-three and with a diversified collection of films under his belt, he attempts to juggle the tasks of starring in, writing, and directing his first feature. The inevitable question springs to mind before starting Don Jon: does he have the talent to execute each of these jobs? Or will he fall victim to a generalized case of nepotism and be destined to echo Baby Jane Hudson’s famous diddy? Maybe the young director deviously references this very concern when his eponymous character sits in a movie theater and states in voice-over, “I don’t understand movies.” Luckily for us, this is not the case.
The pornographic fairytale revolves around Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a bar tending Jersey boy who repetitively shows us what makes him tick: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, but most importantly, his porn. While doing his nightly prowl, Jon’s steady grip on life is disrupted when he encounters Barbara (Johansson), whom he believes to be a “perfect ten.”
He has no issue in courting this babe, but if he wants to keep her, he is asked to make sacrifices, namely keep away from sex videos and enroll in a night class. Avoiding his favorite pastime turns him toward uncouth viewing methods, like sneaking in casual fixes on his phone during lecture. We then meet Esther (Moore), an older classmate who catches Jon in the act and strikes up an unlikely friendship.
The content of the film is risky for a first outing, though these are not the days of Baby Face. Lots of skin is plastered across the screen, generally as website images, and there is no shortage of sexual sites and sounds – one of the funniest moments is a hallway dry hump scene in which Johansson bargains eventual entry to her apartment for an invite to meet Jon’s family. And despite Jon’s methodical, self-satisfaction habits, which he practices thirty times weekly, this is not a sexual addiction movie. Gordon-Levitt does not take his porn fixation as an actual dependency; rather, he is more interested in the diminishing returns of Jon’s love for the superficial. When talking about his porn to Esther, Jon defends, “Lady, the shit I watch on here, they’re not pretending.” Her response, which disarms him like a child finding out the tooth fairy is by medical standards obese and balding, “… Of course they are.” You don’t need to put in for overtime to tackle JGL’s message, but the way he reflects his curiosity of artificiality is fully conceived. An underutilized Brie Larson plays Jon’s younger sister Monica, a millennial transfixed by her phone, void of dialogue, and thereby offering only vapidity. As the curtain is lifted, revealing to Jon that significance is compatible with the visceral, Monica finally utters a thought, now revealing that her exterior has led us all astray. It’s a nice touch.
Jon’s story unfolds in a series of repetitions – the Sunday family dinners, the church pew, the same nightclub, the gym. These scenes keep momentum, and its both a fresh and effective way for this first time director to create a rhythm that complements his somewhat absurdist topic. Even the film’s obvious title nudges at its fantastical use of hypersexuality. Gordon-Levitt and cinematographer Thomas Kloss, credits comprised mostly of music videos, employ a simplistic approach to photography; this is entirely serviceable, but I hope to see the filmmaker take advantage of the medium to a larger extent on future projects. His most pronounced achievement here is the performances from Moore and Johansson. The latter could have easily dipped into mock reality wife, but Johansson – a confusingly divisive actress among people, despite several excellent roles – nails every screen moment as Barbara. She balances hilarity and depth in just the right proportions. Equally as believable is Moore, whose vulnerability reminds us that Gordon-Levitt’s female costars provide the more interesting performances.
Don Jon is an impressive first outing, and while it’s not groundbreaking, why would it need to be. 2014 has been a release year of sex-fueled films: Stranger By the Lake, the Nymphomaniacs, Wetlands, Maleficent. Don Jon will serve as entertaining home viewing amidst these more graphic releases.
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