Mark Reviews Movies

Don Jon


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke, Brie Larson

MPAA Rating: R (for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 9/27/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 27, 2013

The eponymous anti-romantic hero of Don Jon is more than a bit of scumbag. Now that it's out in the open, the question is how writer/director/star Joseph Gordon-Levitt handles that fact. There are a few obvious options. The scumbag could recognize he is one and hate himself for it. That gives one, as parents throughout the ages have called it, character. The scumbag could recognize he is one and embrace it. That gives one the possibility for some panache. We might hate him for it, but at least he's honest.

Jon (Gordon-Levitt)—given the title "Don" before his name by his friends for his ability to woo any woman who catches his eye in a short period of time (namely, before bar time)—is a different sort of rake. He's apathetic about it. He'll watch pornography, go out to a club, take a woman home, and, while she sleeps, watch some more pornography. It's routine, and another part of that routine is to attend Sunday Mass with his family and recite the number of times he's had sex and masturbated—mostly the latter—to the priest in the confessional. He'll do his penance of saying a Hail Mary here and an Our Father there while exercising. Every item on the list of things he cares about, which he states right up front in the movie, is pretty much in that routine.

Jon really isn't that interesting of a scumbag. In fact, Gordon-Levitt makes it pretty clear from that start with the list of what's important to the character that he's an addict. This, of course, calls into question whether or not it's accurate to label him with that initial descriptor. Even beyond the debate between psychological dependency and just regular old scummy behavior that the entire concept of sex addiction raises, Jon seems to exist in a void of convenience.

His being an addict is convenient to the movie's need to give us a reasonable incentive to forgive his actions and maybe even find a little sympathy for him. It's an easy out to avoid dealing with the motives and consequences of his actions. When the screenplay wants Jon to gain some more depth, what seemed like addiction starts to appear to be more in the realm of immature, controllable behavior. Maybe this explains the apathy; the movie has no clear idea who this man is.

In a way, it's necessary, given that the movie spends most of its time presenting Jon's addiction for humor. He seems like a perfectly ordinary guy in his 20s—working a service job, going out to a club at night with his friends to drink and rate women on a scale of one to 10 as a precursor to attempting to get them into bed, which he does with the ease of a professional. One night, for example, he notices Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), one of, if not, the only 10 he's ever seen in real life. After flirting, dancing, and making out, she leaves without him, and Jon repeats the same cycle over again with an anonymous woman he spots soon after Barbara goes.

For him, sex in real life is disappointing compared to the kind he sees online, which is why, even after his real-life encounters, he sneaks out of bed to handle things on his own. Barbara, he believes, is different. He finds her on a social networking website and invites her out for coffee. Their relationship progresses under her expectations for it, which seem shaped by the romantic comedies she loves. They meet each other's friends and family, and eventually, when she thinks the time is right, they have sex.

It turns out Jon was wrong about her in that regard, but when she catches him in his traditional post-coital routine, he denies that he has a problem—that the video he's watching is just a joke—and promises that she'll never catch him watching pornography again. As a reward, she lets him continue with her on her quest to shape the perfect boyfriend. Meanwhile, he continues his pornography-viewing habit; he just keeps it a secret and lies about it to himself and his priest.

The point to all of this seems to be the goal of serving as a counterpoint to the typical Hollywood notion of romance—that relationships are either good or bad, that people in love exist as perfect beings only held back by circumstances beyond their control, and that one person can change another overnight (The movie's lampooning of romantic comedies, with various cameos of Hollywood stars appearing in a whirlwind montage of happy feelings, backs up that point). It's a critique of the phony façade, and if one can overlook how haphazardly Gordon-Levitt presents Jon's not-at-all-debilitating addiction for laughs, the movie does work for at least its first act as a comic portrayal of a pathetic man controlled by his libido.

Matters shift dramatically with the introduction of Esther (Julianne Moore), Jon's classmate in a night class Barbara has coerced him to take, who knows Jon's secret and doesn't judge him for it. Once the two begin sharing their own bond based in misery, Don Jon begins a nearly insufferable slide into the same sort of phoniness the movie has been lambasting.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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