Sunday, September 29, 2013

Obsessive-Compulsive: Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson in Don Jon

In Don Jon, writer, director and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives us a comedy about sex as tightly compartmentalized as the life of its main character. Jon is a New Jersey bartender who takes a different girl home from the club every Saturday night and shows up for Catholic mass with his parents the next morning – the center that holds it all together is the hard-core porn he watches addictively on his computer. There’s something disarming about a movie this willing to be lighthearted about sexual compulsion, but Don Jon is not exactly Portnoy’s Complaint. Gordon-Levitt only shows us the clean surfaces of Jon’s obsessions – we don’t get a peak at the tension or the fear underneath, or even a taste of the pleasure principle that drives them.

I always thought that pornography appealed to people for similar reasons; it indulges the mechanics of sex, its kinks and fetishes and its carnal veneer, but it doesn’t get curious about what gets people into bed together in the first place. There’s nothing particularly subversive about two people fucking. On screen, as in life, eroticism is in the drama of emotional risk. Don Jon opens with a promising romantic comedy mis-en-scène when Jon, disillusioned by one-night stands, tracks down Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a woman whose refusal to go home with him after an evening of dance floor foreplay makes him think she can supply the depth he’s been missing. Their incompatible sexual fantasies – his based on pornography (which she abhors) and hers on weepy romantic pictures (which he disdains) – is the smartest and funniest idea in the film, but Gordon-Levitt doesn’t follow through on its romantic possibilities; instead he sells out Barbara by turning her into an exploitative prude. When Don Jon turns out to be a small-scale redemption story about a guy who learns to stop jerking off and fall in love – and to give up his porn junkie lifestyle – you realize the movie’s not taking any chances. It gives in to erotic phobias instead of dramatizing them.

As Barbara, Johansson shimmers with libidinous mischief in her early scenes. When she gets turned on by the sincerity with which Jon tries to please her, and even during their courtship, when she withholds sex from him until “the right moment” – when he’s agreed to sign up for night classes and take her to dinner at his parents’ – we see that she’s as hungry for erotic gratification as he is, and has found it on the only terms she knows how. But the movie quickly falls out from under her. It’s a cheap trick to create a character only to choke the life out of her – the movie condemns her for her conventional fantasies in order to prove that Jon, who learns to question his own values, has hidden depth – not only because it’s bad writing, but because it forces an actor to fight the material she’s been given or to be reduced by it. You can feel Johansson struggling against the writing when, at the hardware store, Jon offends Barbara’s class-consciousness and traditional sense of gender by trying to buy a mop, or when she dumps him for lying about watching porn (as though she’d discovered a secret stash of heroin in his sock drawer), neither of which situations are remotely believable, but there’s no way she can triumph over scenes this rigged. The full weight of the picture is against her.

Gordon-Levitt as Jon
Julianne Moore – she plays Esther, a woman struggling with grief who Jon starts sleeping with after they meet at night class – might have even worse material, but her effortless, relaxed naturalism has the effect of exposing the phoniness of the character that’s been written for her. Their affair is treated by the movie as a realistic foil to the narcissistic fantasies of his relationship with Barbara, but it has the very puritanical sheen of one of Barbara’s saccharine melodramas: Esther teaches Jon – mysteriously, and apparently through a handful of platitudes – about mature romantic intimacy. I didn’t buy the situation, particularly that a guy as sexually juvenile as Jon wouldn’t have at least a few reservations about hooking up with a woman the same age as his mother, but Moore has a handful of terrific moments. In the scene when she reveals to Jon that her husband and son died in a car accident, Moore plays the ambiguity in her seduction beautifully – you see that, like Patricia Clarkson’s character in The Station Agent who becomes drawn to Peter Dinklage not out of romantic loneliness but because he reminds her of the little boy she’s lost, Esther is attracted to Jon as a lover who can fill the material void.

Warren Beatty in Shampoo
Anyone who saw 50/50 knows what a fine, sensitive actor Gordon-Levitt has become; there wasn’t an inauthentic moment – or a trace of sentiment – in his limber naturalistic performance as a young cancer patient trying to keep everyone else in his life together while he privately faces down the reality of his prognosis. When his own fury and despair finally catches up to him the night before a surgery that could either end or save his life, the marvel of Gordon-Levitt’s work is not in the big scene but in the delicate emotional shifts that have led up to it. In Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt skims the surface of the character, and since he’s his own director, there’s no one to call his bluff. He’s also supplied himself with material where he never has to get vulnerable, because the screenplay substitutes morals for psychology. We get that porn is his transgression but not how or why it’s become the primary object of his sexual desire. What if Gordon-Levitt had played his masturbation scenes with the lightness, the sweet pleasure and the longing for escape of the young John Travolta on the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever? Or with the comic bamboozlement of Warren Beatty’s inspired turn in the sex farce Shampoo as a hedonist playboy caught in the cross-hairs of a newly calculating cultural era?

No chance. As a director and a writer, Gordon-Levitt conspires against his own best instincts as an actor. The movie is a critique of the commodification of sex on screen, and the surrogates for romance the media tries to sell us. But the only antidote to objectification is subjectivity, the recognition that desire itself is real and can even be meaningful when the object of desire might be phony or amoral or corrupt. Don Jon is skittish and literal, and it skirts the question of why any of its characters gets turned on and what the stakes are for them when they do. By pathologizing their desires, it turns its characters into products. It's condescending. Jon is a cartoon naïf – this is an adult man who’s astonished to learn he doesn’t score extra points in confession for sexual integrity – and the audience is cued to instantly know more about him that he can know about himself. His parents, played by Tony Danza and Glenne Headly, are similarly frozen in a state of arrested development; his sister (Brie Larson) is so tuned out she spends every scene scrolling through her iPhone. I think this is the hip, twenty-something version of Allison Janney’s role in American Beauty as the suburban housewife who instructs the audience in how mindless and oppressive suburban life is by floating through the movie in a catatonic daze. (By the end of the picture, I felt much in her condition.) Don Jon knocks you over the head with its ideas about middle-class consumption – and by the time Brie Larson opens her mouth, in her final scene, to supply a moral, you wish you’d spent the movie on your iPhone, too – but it isn’t made in the same artistic bad faith as Sam Mendes’ and Alan Ball’s in American Beauty. Gordon-Levitt’s vice isn’t hubris but insecurity. His movie, like his character, seeks refuge in stultifying repetitions: it’s obsessive-compulsive. 

Amanda Shubert is a PhD student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

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