Hardcore Family Values, by David Bax
After the requisite bumpers and logos, the first image we see in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon is of an animated creature absolutely losing his shit at the sight of a sexy lady in that exaggerated, impossible Tex Avery style of eyes bugging out and tongue dropping to the ground and unfurling like a heavy rug. It’s only the beginning of a montage that details the different ways female objectification and the cinematic male gaze might present themselves to a boy at different stages of his life. You’d better believe Phoebe Cates emerging from the pool in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is included. And, of course, the sequence climaxes with shots from modern-day, low production value, internet porn.
Other than serving its purpose as the kick-off of this little experimental video essay Gordon-Levitt has placed at the start of his film, it’s fitting that we’re introduced to the world he’s created via a cartoon. You might say that we never really leave it. In his feature writing and directing debut, Gordon-Levitt immerses us in a universe of hyperbolic representations of pretty much everything. His lead character Jon’s Italian-American family, if they were to put on a shirt over their tank tops, might be found in an Olive Garden commercial. Jon’s amped-up, club-lurking, bird-dogging friends make an episode of Entourage look like a Ken Loach film. And his eventual girlfriend, Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson), is patently archetypal both as the dunderheaded male’s ideal woman and that same boy’s most feared ballbreaker.
You’re more than forgiven if you’ve gotten the impression that these things make Don Jon a bad film. For a bit, even while watching the movie, I made the same mistake. But hopefully you’ll realize as I did that – just as cartoons aren’t of less worth because they’re hyperbolic – Don Jon isn’t a failure because it’s often ridiculous. In fact, that’s the reason it works so well.
Though Jon’s milieu may verge on parody – seriously, his father screams at the football game on TV while slurping linguini – it only serves to highlight the fact that his and his cohorts’ values are disturbingly true to life. I don’t just mean the worldview that allows his friends to talk degradingly about women and where their physical attributes fall on a one-to-ten scale and then take those women home and hammer away at them in short bursts of one-sided sex. I also refer the more insidious and widely held American beliefs in religious and family morality that prop up and excuse such behavior so long as everyone tells God they’re sorry and eventually stops fucking around and starts procreating.
Gordon-Levitt has two fascinating and fruitful sources of conflict for his sparklingly written and precisely acted titular lead. The first comes from his twin realizations, when things with Barbara get serious, that the prescribed path is not as easy and natural as it’s been made out to be and that all his forebears, including his own father, know that and have kept it from him. There’s a brief but crucial moment when Jon lies to his friend about how great his sex life is when you understand that he’s starting to surrender to the status quo and deciding to keep up the ruse.
The second conflict comes from a character named Esther (played by Julianne Moore). As a part of Barbara’s plan to make Jon into suitable marriage and child-fathering material, he has enrolled in a business class in the evenings. Esther is also in the class and one day, upon taking her seat, catches Jon watching porn on his phone. The awkward, hilarious and eye-opening friendship that springs from that occasion is potentially life-altering. To the urbane and socially progressive readership of this website, Esther’s ideals probably sound a lot closer to normal than Jon’s but, in his eyes, she’s either a radical hippie or a complete nutjob.
Don Jon’s propulsive question is whether its protagonist, who is at his core a kind and intelligent person, will find the courage to lead a more enlightened life or seek the comfort and acceptance of the more familiar one. The backdrop to this struggle is a whole lot of porn, to which Jon seems to be addicted (did I not mention that yet?), though the more hardcore shots that were reportedly removed to avoid an NC-17 rating would likely have helped make the contrast between reality and fantasy (both pornographic and moral) sharper. Still, Gordon-Levitt makes his point well in a lively, funny and very promising debut.