By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 28, 2013)
In her review of the 1966 film Alfie, in which Michael Caine stars as a self-styled “Cockney Don Juan” who confides his chauvinistic tenets on relationships to the viewer, the late Pauline Kael wrote that screenwriter Bill Naughton’s dialogue “…keeps the viewer absorbed in Alfie, the cold-hearted sexual hotshot, and his self-exculpatory line of reasoning.” If you fast forward the time line from swinging 60s London to the present-day Jersey shore, trading a double-breasted suit for a wife-beater, this could double as a description of the eponymous character in Don Jon, who explains his philosophy of life thusly:
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.
“Self exculpatory” is an understatement. Especially once Jon (played with “fuhgettaboutit” swagger by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed) really gets cooking on a breathless jag describing his love affair with internet porn. Not that he has any trouble with the ladies, mind you (his nickname stems from a seemingly effortless ability to bed a different woman every weekend, much to the wonderment and admiration of his “boys”).
This may be moot to interject, but our hero may be exhibiting classic signs of sex addiction. I’m not judging; I’m just sayin’.
Anyway, back to the porn. The thing is, as much as he does love the ladies, it seems that sex with a partner somehow never measures up to the online experience; he can’t “lose himself” in the moment in quite the same way. Again, I risk belaboring the obvious: Is it possible that the porn addiction has given ‘Don’ J some unrealistic expectations about actual adult relationships?
Enter Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) a knockout beauty who responds to Jon’s time-tested moves…but only up to a point. She is nobody’s one-night stand; she wants to be wooed. At first, Jon responds like the proverbial deer in the headlights. This could require radical concessions, like maybe (gulp) meeting for lunch or (worse case) coffee first. What is this strange new feeling? Could it be this “love” of which people speak?
Just as Jon begins to sense the paradigm shift, he meets another (more mature) woman (Julianne Moore, acting circles around everyone else) who seems to be genuinely interested in him as a person (he has no idea what to make of that). Jon’s amusing Sunday confessions begin to expand beyond his typical “Bless me, Father, I masturbated 34 times this week.”
Gordon-Levitt has poured admirable effort into his directing debut, but in his over-eagerness to prove himself, he may have put a few too many eggs in the basket. On the plus side, he’s assembled a great cast. In fact, some of the supporting players threaten to walk away with the film; particularly a surprisingly effective Tony Danza (yes, that Tony Danza) as Jon’s father, telegraphing (with expert comic timing) how the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree.
Brie Larson (as Jon’s sullen sister) steals every scene she’s in-no small feat considering that she spends most of the film staring at her cell phone, until deciding to impart a few words of wisdom toward the end (it’s that whole Silent Bob thing). On the down side, there are jarring tonal shifts that leave you scratching your head as to what Gordon-Levitt is trying to say at times with this (sort of) morality play/social satire hybrid. Still, I was entertained. I laughed, and almost cried (just don’t tell my boys).