Yesterday I wrote about Life During Wartime. In this movie, several characters were bogged down with annoying character traits that were conceits of the screenwriter. To emerge out of these traits into a realized character was not easy for any of the actors to pull off in that movie. However, in Don Jon, about a meathead that is addicted to porn, it seemed effortless to overcome this conceit and emerge a fully realized character with a complex story.
Jon wants to lead an ideal life. He wants to have the great car, the great body and the great woman. At the beginning of the movie, he has no problem picking up women at the club he frequents and bringing them home only to have boring one-sided sex. After he does this he goes off to masturbate to porn. Porn is his constant friend. But one night, he meets Barbara. Barbara is a drop dead sexy woman with her life together and a mission to land a great husband. She sees Jon as being that person, so she uses sex and her flirting abilities to morph him into the right kind of man. She forces him into night classes, buys him suitable clothing, and above all bans him from watching porn. Jon falls into a relationship with her easily, but the romance does not seem to be exactly what he is wanting. He is willing to change for her, but he can’t seem to completely give up porn. So he finds ways to watch it without her knowing. This leads to him watching porn in the classroom just before his night class starts. Everything is fine and dandy until Esther, an older woman whom Jon had caught crying in the doorway earlier in the film, catches him. Esther gives him a vintage porn tape and they become reluctant friends. Esther seems to have something off about her, and Jon is intrigued to find out this is, despite their very different personalities. As things start to hit the skids with Barbara, Jon finds comfort in porn more and more leading to a crossroads in his life. He must decide if he should pursue the life he has always idealized or start over completely with someone or something else.
Jon starts out as a pile of stereotypes. He is Italian-American, loud, overly muscled, tight shirted, and full of misconceptions about women. However as the film progresses, he sheds these traits without them actually going away. He slowly evolves into a person that just wants to be loved and accepted for who he is… and also to have amazing sex (something that he has never had, apparently). Both Barbara and Esther start out as stereotypes as well, but as we spend more time with them we see the truth behind each character trait and we understand why Barbara has such idealized ideas about marriage and why Esther is a little off kilter. The ability to do this makes Joseph Gordon-Levitt a surprisingly good first time filmmaker.
I avoided this film for a long time because I thought I wasn’t going to like it. I have always admired Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acting abilities, but was unsure how he would be able to handle being behind the camera. Most actors have a hard time transitioning into producing their own material. They become too self-indulgent because there is no one telling them to dial it back or try it a different way. But when a friend came to visit me from out-of-town and threw this on to pass time before going to a concert, I became immediately engrossed in the story. It surprised me that this film was so watchable. Although the film can be easily broken down to its cliché tagline, it finds the truth behind that cliché.