Filling the blanks in 2013: “Don Jon”

Just because you know how to drive a car, doesn’t mean you’ll know how to fix it, let alone build one. I think every actor, who desires to make the transition to the other side of the lens, should be told exactly that, and having seen “Don Jon”, I believe Joseph Gordon-Levitt should have seriously considered staying where he was. Surely, there has been a number of film stars who succeeded in taking that step (Mel Gibson, Tim Robbins, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, or more recently Ben Affleck, to name a few), but the ability to perform simply does not warrant one’s ability to direct other actors and build a film from start to finish.

Just to set the record straight, at no point before seeing “Don Jon” (formerly known as “Don Jon’s Addiction”) had I been subconsciously discrediting this work and I was secretly hoping it would be as good as the raving Sundance reviews built it up to be. But let’s be honest – the idea of an actor going for a triple whammy as a début writer/director and a lead star in a comedy (dramedy?) based around a concept of the social perception of online pornography did raise a few flags – at least for me. I find it quite sad, because it could have been much more interesting, if done right.

don jon poster

In essence, “Don Jon” is supposed to be a story about a guy with a problem. Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young, attractive stud that works out regularly, goes to night clubs with his buddies, picks up chicks for the purpose of banging, swears in his car, attends Sunday mass, and has regular dinners with his parents. Oh, I almost forgot… He also frequently, diligently and shamelessly jerks off to the ‘tune’ of online porn. It’s not that he’s a loser who can’t bed a girl – he’s just the opposite, but the real stuff never does it for him, because real girls would never do anything remotely close to what he can see online.

At some point, Jon finally finds ‘The One’, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who has it all – hot, funny, (a little too) bossy… the whole caboodle. She convinces Jon to finish a degree and get a better job and basically turns him into a nice little boy-toy. Everything falls apart, though, the minute she discovers Jon’s little dirty secret, as she feels betrayed, because her man needs to seek satisfaction in the arms of virtual bimbos. This brings Jon to a defining moment in his life, where he will have to find out, whether he can do without his addiction. Weirdly enough, at the same time he befriends Esther (Julianne Moore) at his evening classes, who seems to be struggling with vices of her own.

The biggest problem I have with “Don Jon” is its story, or more to the point – its lack. I think it is more accurate to call whatever-this-is an idea stretched out to 90 minutes rather than a fully fleshed out story with compelling character arcs and an interesting (and more importantly – deeper) discussion on problem of the social and emotional disconnect between the online fantasies and the reality of a relationship. For some reason I don’t think Gordon-Levitt had a clear idea of where he wanted his characters to go, because past the setup the story goes exactly nowhere and the direction slides more into chaos with every minute of running time.

It seems to me that Gordon-Levitt was more concerned with filling the film with bullshit irrelevant dialogue instead of making it work in service of the characters, or the story as a whole. There is not a single minute within “Don Jon” that is not carpet bombed with unnaturally fast-paced dialogue (or the off-screen narration, equally fast). I could maybe see it as inspired by David O. Russell’s work, but it takes much more than putting four characters in a room and have them yell at each other to have it look good. In reality, the notion of leaving no silence between the lines comes across as awkward instead of brisk and refreshing, as though he was genuinely afraid of having his characters play without words. And it gets tiresome after a while, because nothing else really happens in this film – people just talk and whenever the story needs to take a step forward, we will see a character on screen spell it out for everybody. I mean, we are not that stupid, you know, and we can figure stuff out from the context, or body language, but I guess this is the ‘new guy thing’. As a result, “Don Jon” instead of touching on an important problem, it glosses over it in a morally infantile manner, thus making it look more like an after-school special about the dangers of masturbation.

Gordon-Levitt’s inexperience spills out onto basically every other aspect of the film. I can’t seriously blame the actors for their wooden and over-the-top performances, because they are for the most part very good actors. I know for a fact, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore cat act brilliantly when directed by a seasoned veteran who has the balls to enable them in a best way possible. Having your characters speak all the damn time and shout over each other doesn’t really come close to the level of the previously mentioned David O. Russell’s craftsmanship.

Additionally, cutting the film into three-second-long shots and overflowing the running time with the repetitive visual cues (as if ripped off from Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”) does not make the film seem brisk and modern, but rather unoriginal and artificially cool. Then again, it can all be piled onto the curb of inexperience, because Gordon-Levitt clearly had no clue how to convey his ideas, so whenever he couldn’t have the characters say things out loud, he resorted to showing everything. Thus, whenever Jon watches porn, we see him watch porn. When he’s done wanking, we see a tissue. When he has a change of heart, we immediately see the obvious difference in his swearing in a car… The list goes on.

I could maybe give this film a pass if it wasn’t hyped up so much, because it evidently is a debut feature through-and-through. It’s flawed and full of rookie mistakes, with bland cliché characters and a very basic story arc, on which everything is hinged. Joseph Gordon-Levitt definitely needs to hone his skills before he can be recognized as a full-blown director and having the world raving about that rubbish film is not going to help him at all. If anything, he might end up with a severe case of Macaulaculkinitis, which we all know is fatal to one’s career.

Letterboxd

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