Friday, September 27, 2013

Don Jon: Love's labors lost

Don Jon (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue, nudity, profanity and drug use

By Derrick Bang

Fledgling writers have a tendency toward overkill, a problem that repeatedly plagues this film.

When Barbara (Scarlett Johansson, standing center) insists on meeting her new lover's
friends, Jon (Joseph Gordeon-Levitt, standing center) obliges by arranging a gathering
at a local club. Barbara, obviously pleased, is all sweetness and smiles ... but, in truth,
this is merely the latest in what will become a string of one-sided little victories.
Although dissecting the nature of True Love has been a laudable quest since stories were told via cave paintings, Joseph Gordon-Levitt — making his debut here as a big-screen writer and director — wields a meat cleaver when a scalpel would have sufficed. He has a solid sense of what’s funny, and a good ear for relationship dynamics, but his hammer-handed approach is guaranteed to alienate the very people likely to be most touched by this story’s core moral, and its outcome.

He also falls into another common trap. Repetition rarely enhances a lesson; we merely get bored. Or, in this case, disgusted.

In this particular case, it simply isn’t necessary to share what his porn-addicted character views during every spare moment; we don’t need to watch with him. The first montage of taut breasts, erect nipples, firm butts and willing mouths is sufficient; from that point forward, we know what he’s watching every time he sits in front of his laptop screen.

Indeed, all we need is the familiar F-sharp-major start-up chime, which Gordon-Levitt unerringly employs for maximum comic effect ... but then he ruins the moment, each time, with yet another tiresome display of thrusting bodies and naughty bits.

And vulgar off-camera commentary. Gordon-Levitt also beats that affectation to death.

The story, then:

Jon Martello Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) is a blue-collar New Jersey late twenty-/early thirtysomething bartender who takes enormous pride in his apartment, his car, his appearance and his ability to score with the ladies. Thanks to this latter talent, guy pals Bobby and Danny (Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke) have nicknamed him “Don Jon.”

Trouble is, Jon doesn’t enjoy women for their companionship or relationship potential; he objectifies them to the extreme and is interested in sex strictly for its own sake. But that isn’t satisfying; he can’t “lose himself” in lovemaking with a flesh-and-blood female partner, the way he experiences a brief “happy zone” with the assistance of an ideal Internet porn clip.

On a deeply submerged level, Jon vaguely realizes that something is wrong with his approach, and with his choices, but he’s too content with the status quo to probe. And so he cheerfully follows this long-established routine, expiating any guilt while dutifully attending church each Sunday morning, cataloguing his list of sins and accepting a penance of Hail Marys and Our Fathers (a cute running gag).

Then it’s Sunday lunch with his tempestuous family: boorish, loud-mouthed father Jon Sr. (Tony Danza), who insists on watching football during the meal; forever frazzled mother Angela (Glenne Headly), who’s “ready to be a grandmother” and wishes her only son would settle down with a nice girl; and bored younger sister Monica (Brie Larson), who rolls her eyes a lot, never says a word, and texts during the shouting that invariably punctuates this weekly ritual.

Monica’s silence, an even funnier running gag, eventually builds to an unexpectedly hilarious — and insightful — payoff: further proof that Gordon-Levitt has solid comedy instincts, if he’d simply get out of his own way.

The dynamic shifts during a typical evening of club trolling, when Jon spots “a perfect dime (10)” loitering near the bar: That would be Barbara Sugerman, played to husky, erotic perfection by Scarlett Johansson. Although just as earthy and crude as Jon — an apparent Jersey girl archetype in this post-Snooki universe — Barbara isn’t “easy,” as she makes abundantly clear by refusing to go home with him that first night.

Intrigued, Jon does some quick research, comes up with her name and Facebook page, and figures out how to wheedle a lunch date. Similarly intrigued — or perhaps only amused — she accepts. They begin a relationship; Jon finds that he can’t get Barbara off his mind. But her refusal to hit the sack does nothing to curb his laptop activities.

At the same time, Barbara has an odd way of expressing her faux chasteness, since she soon teases Jon with a level of physical contact that builds the poor guy into helpless sexual tension. One hallway encounter, outside her apartment, deserves placement in the list of all-time Sexiest Moments While Fully Clothed.

It appears, at first blush, that Barbara is using the only weapon at her disposal to “reform” Jon: to make him a better, kinder, more thoughtful person. Goodness knows, he could use some work. And so she insists on meeting his family and friends, and taking him to meet her family: the sort of stuff that couples do, when they’re starting to think long-term.

But it becomes apparent that Barbara is neither altruistic nor benign, and we start to wonder: At what point do attempted refinement and the elimination of bad habits morph into an unhealthy character makeover?

Jon couldn’t answer such questions, not being adept at self-analysis (yet). But he understands that this relationship is off-kilter, somehow, because he still can’t shake the porn habit ... not even when Barbara finally consents to become his full-time bedmate.

Faint glimmers of perspective arrive with Esther (Julianne Moore), a fellow student — an “older woman” — also taking the night class that Barbara has insisted Jon enroll in. (The subject remains unspecified; we only know that it looks and sounds as dry as chalk dust.) Esther, wise in the way of maturity, also is candid to a fault: a trait that Jon initially finds disconcerting, even alienating. But Esther isn’t destined to be a chance encounter, and therein lies this story’s third — and most satisfying — act.

Moore lights up the screen the same way her character invigorates this film. Esther is bright, perky and shrewdly astute; she sizes up Jon with sharp observational skills that Sherlock Holmes would admire. At the same time, Esther is damaged goods herself; we see pain lingering at the edges of Moore’s eyes, and in the subtle slump of her body.

Esther is, in short, a truly genuine person: quite a shock, in a film otherwise littered with stereotypes and shallow, two-dimensional stick-figure characters.

Whether she’s enough to rescue this otherwise clumsy rom-com will depend on the viewer’s tolerance for smut. Needless to say, this is not a film for the easily offended; the R-rating is well deserved.

Gordon-Levitt certainly has a handle on his portrayal of Jon, and (as director) he deftly plays with us throughout this story: Is Jon a sympathetic character, deserving of growth or redemption, or is he simply a shallow lout? He’s certainly not mean-spirited per se, merely self-absorbed. And, let’s face it, the apple clearly didn’t fall far from the tree, given his father’s behavior.

In terms of the story’s comedy elements, Gordon-Levitt knows precisely how to use his wicked sidelong glances and near-smiles of amused suspicion. Given the available evidence here, there’s no question that he can act and direct; I’m less persuaded of his writing skills.

And yet he scores some insightful social commentary, as when Jon points out that we all wallow in habitual behavior; his just happens to be socially unacceptable. Barbara is hooked on maudlin romantic melodramas, and who’s to say her taste is any better or worse than his? (One of these big-screen weepers, skewered for maximum hilarity, stars an unbilled Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum.)

Johansson has a wickedly good time as the overtly sensual Barbara, who drips lust while cooing with obviously false innocence; she incessantly calls Jon “Baby,” which — right there — should be enough to make any wary man head for the hills. At first, Johansson cleverly allows only the slightest glimpses of Barbara’s actual personality; her very bearing then shifts once this spider feels she has her fly sufficiently trapped.

Danza and Headly are overplayed burlesques, the family meals having no more relation to reality than Jackie Gleason’s scenery-chewing outbursts more than half a century ago, on TV’s The Honeymooners. Luke and Brown, similarly, remain under-developed as Danny and Bobby ... although Brown tries mightily to layer some depth into his performance. The script simply doesn’t give him enough to work with.

The poster publicizing Don Jon highlights wildly enthusiastic, single-word pull-quotes from various reviews: stellar, hilarious, genuine, emotional, edgy, confident. I’ll give it edgy and hilarious (the latter only at times), but the rest are wishful thinking. Yes, this is an interesting first effort from an actor turned writer/director, and Gordon-Levitt certainly bears watching, should he pursue a broader career as a hyphenate.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Don Jon is uneven, frequently clumsy and needlessly offensive. Proceed with caution.

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