SXSW Review: DON JON Doesn’t Quite Seduce

Formerly DON JON'S ADDICTION, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut tries awfully hard.

I admire Don Jon. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a lot to say in his directorial and screenwriting debut. He has a lot to say about objectification and solipsism, about the lengths it takes to make a human connection in a superficial world. But for admiring Don Jon, I'm not entirely sure that I like it. You can feel the gears turning in the movie, one so jam-packed with metaphors it doesn't leave much room to breathe.

That's not to say it's not fun. Jon (Levitt) is a Jersey Shore-style guido with a porn addiction, so yeah, it's plenty fun. He spends his days bartending, beefing up at the gym, keeping his home immaculate, going to church and jacking off. He gets enough tail - I mean, it's a swoll Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so he has no trouble laying pipe - but there's no piece of tail that competes with a good money shot.

I use that distasteful phrase, piece of tail, intentionally - Jon's a sleazy belt-notcher, not interested in anything but a quick lay and a lot of appreciative high fives from his bros, until he meets that elusive dime, Barbara Sugerman. Scarlett Johansson's great in the difficult role, a gum-smacking Jersey blonde with press-on nails and an impassive stare. She makes Jon work for it, and work he does, going to night classes,co-mingling friends, attempting to scale back on the porn (with little success) and introducing her to his family - Tony Danza, Glenne Headly and Brie Larson, all of whom are wildly great. Larson spends the entire film dead-eyed scrolling on her phone, uttering only one line that elicited a round of applause from the audience.

The film's shot through liberally with porn clips and offers a healthy dose of the male gaze, but it's all in the service of an honorable message. Jon has a journey, a clear path that ends in enlightenment. He's a man who treats everything in his life as a remote reflection of himself. He goes to church and confession every Sunday in the most deeply automatic way, rattling off the requisite Hail Mary's during chin-ups at the gym. He parades Barbara around with pride, takes extreme care of his car and his apartment and has a perfunctory relationship with his parents. Everything is a trophy or a symbol to him, little pieces that add up to what Jon assumes is the perfect life.

And then he meets Esther, a loose-limbed eccentric in his night class who doesn't fit into that portrait whatsoever. And despite an unsurprisingly tremendous performance from Julianne Moore, this is where I begin to have some serious problems with Don Jon.

If you're sensitive to spoilers, you might want to skip this paragraph, which goes into some light latter-act details. Barbara discovers Jon's porn addiction and high-tails it out of there, unable to process that a man sleeping with someone as high-rate as she might still need the cold comfort of Enter Esther, who takes an odd interest in Jon from day one, slowly wearing him down with random gifts of classy foreign porn and an appealing lack of self-consciousness. Jon, who is a muscled mass of unadulterated self-consciousness, slowly grows into a better man through the power of Esther's quirky honesty and gentle love-making. Barbara's the high-maintenance princess that only fed into Jon's narcissism - Esther's the free-spirited cool girl who teaches him to be a man.

It's a journey that would be far more interesting if he'd taken it on his own, for one, with only his broken heart as impetus. But more troubling is the Good Girlfriend/Bad Girlfriend conceit resting on Jon's beefy shoulders. There's a lot of objectification on purpose in Don Jon, objectification toward a point. But the dichotomy of Barbara and Esther stings of unintentional objectification, emotional objectification. Esther arrives just in time, the angelus ex machina delivered for the sole purpose of teaching Jon a lesson. Despite all the warm humanity Moore is capable of instilling in any role, on paper, Esther isn't much of a human.

That said, my concerns don't change two important truths about Don Jon - it's an admirable effort with an admirable message, and it's a lot of fun. I only wish it weren't trying quite so hard, or that by trying so hard it doesn't still manage to undermine its own lesson.