Walking the dog. Jerking the gherkin. Saying hello to Mr Johnson. Watching porn and flogging the log is one of those topics people are more comfortable talking about under the cover of euphemism. Don Jon drags it out into the New Jersey daylight. Mostly.
“There’s only a few things I really care about in life. My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn.”
That’s Jon Martello Jr. (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – or ‘Don Jon’ to his friends, on account of his skills with the ladies. Oh yes, Jon is quite the ladies man: he spends his nights going out on the tiles, jumping into bed with them, then slipping back out so he can hop online and spank the monkey. He does a lot of that. The monkey spanking.
Why? Because porn lets him do something real women can’t: lose himself. All that starts to change, though, when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a woman with sex appeal even stronger than her accent. Her one condition for them dating? Give up the porn. He agrees to stop buffing the banana – then gets right back to polishing it the following evening.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut sounds like a dark, edgy movie. It certainly starts off that way, with a hyperactive montage of sexualised images from modern society: advertising, music videos, movies, the internet. All of them, Don Jon suggests, contribute to this conditioned environment, which leaves Jon preferring playing with himself to other people.Behind the camera, Gordon-Levitt keeps beating off those rhythms, as flurries of images flick together like tabs in a web browser. The film’s hard edge, though, soon softens into something surprisingly conventional. Gone is the harsh satire; in its place, the more heart-warming story of a man trying to find redemption.
That mismatch between controversial tone and safe content means that sometimes Don Jon feels as if it’s trying too hard. Every time our lead deposits a tissue in the trash, for example, it’s accompanied by the recycle bin effect from an iMac – a noise we hear almost as much as the Apple start-up tone, which he tells us is enough to make him aroused. While the sound design – and Nathan Johnson’s excellent music, made from real world noises – do a good job of choking the artistic chicken, other moments are less arousing; a reliance on repetition and mild stereotyping means that Jon’s routine of working out, going out, bashing the bishop at home then bashing the bishop’s ears at church turns him into a shallow caricature more than a character. The humour, meanwhile, sometimes feels a bit limp.
But Gordon-Levitt’s charisma isn’t something to toss off lightly. Singing Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch while driving his car, the casting choice could seem like the actor pleasuring himself, but he’s perfect as the lost lunkhead. He and Scarlett Johansson (sporting a near-unrecognisable drawl) rub each other up just the right way to keep you interested.
The rest of the cast don’t blow their jobs either; Glenne Headly as Jon’s mum brings real laughs, while Tony Danza steals scenes as his proud – and leering – dad.
While they dote (and perv) over Jon’s new squeeze, it soon becomes apparent that Barbara has just as much a skewed image of men as he does of women; one wants love to be like porn, the other wants love to be like a Hollywood movie (watch out for some fantastic parodies in a local cinema). It’s a provocative – if under-explored – question about gender roles and perception, but with neither character feeling particularly well milked, one that also leaves their relationship feeling rather hollow.
Enter Julianne Moore as Esther, a student on a course Barbara orders Jon to take. A gentle cushion of fresh air, her understated presence delivers depth to the film’s overstated presentation. Crying, smiling and even stripping, she gives what could have been a one-sided exercise an engaging climax. The result is an uneven, but entertaining 90 minutes in a darkened room. You may never quite lose yourself in it, but still, it’s more fun than diddling the Skittle or slapping the – you get the idea.
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