First things first: Don Jon never quite comes alive as a work of fiction. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first directorial effort promises style but uses it sloppily. Plus, it’s as often messily sloppy as it is fascinatingly sloppy. The themes it unveils are multitudinous and often at-odds with one another, and many are not fully reconciled. Put simply, I’m confident JGL had a damn good idea of his film in his head, and he set about using visual storytelling and honest-to-god mise-en-scene, but he forgot to check himself and make sure all his ingredients were setting in the oven. The film swerves back and forth with hectic zeal and energy between a stinging, bitter, and harshly clinical dissection of obsessive compulsion disorder and something much frothier indeed, not quite romantic comedy and not quite snarky attack on the whole of New Jersey as a state. It’s so busy with all these themes it never really has time to come up for air. The end result is something that is stylistically compelling if not for any specific purpose, fascinating in individual moments but much much less than the sum of its parts.
And this is without taking into account some of the larger ethical issues to the story. As is, it’s an examination of a young Don Jon type (JGL), an arch parody of a Jersey Short bro, who lives for porn and masturbation at the expense of human compassion or sex. It’s not crippling – his life is almost wholly functional – but other women to him are merely pieces of meat, and even then they aren’t nearly as satisfying as a quiet evening with himself and the internet’s finest. One day he meets Barbara Sugarman (a wonderful Scarlett Johannson, who sells multiple layers of a character even when they don’t necessarily exist in the screenplay), herself a more nuanced Jersey Princess stereotype who wants everything from a companion, where-as Jon wants close-to-nothing. Jon falls in love, or so he thinks, but his struggles with porn continue, end, continue, end, and continue again, until we’re not really sure what’s going on with him. Or what the script thinks is going on …
Most notably, the story’s questioning, curious attitude toward gender and its tit-for-tat critique of male and female types conveniently fails to consider social discrimination as a broader series of institutions. In its treatment of Barbara as a pushy nag, it ends up vaguely critical of women in a non-committal way (for the film is somewhat too confused to really commit to much). Of course, it also posits that an older female, played by a terrific Julianne Moore, is Jon’s only true savior (which says nothing about the film using women to define and save the virtue of the male lead character). Even then though, the last half-hour of the film is its messiest, when Moore’s character takes center-stage. She also suffers from the dual blow of being surrounded by some seriously self-indulgent sentimentalism (the script’s fault, not her’s) and a vague sense of her as the upper-middle-class sophisticate who unambiguously saves Jon from his dangerous blue-collar nature. It’s not a significant part of the film, but it can’t wash away the slightest hint of elitism. Plus, the end is so poorly defined and rushed (this is the rare modern film that could actually use an extra 15 minutes) that it lessens the impact of the whole film.
There are other problems aplenty. JGL’s performance is far too broad and caricatured to work. The film has no idea whether to treat its characters as exceedingly simple cartoons or deeply pained human beings, or even what “tone” is. Everything involving Jon’s family is underdeveloped and depressingly broad. Watching the film, it’s painfully obvious that JGL is taking his first tour behind the camera; it’s a sloppy work that needs its rough edges rounded off to really work on its own. At the same time, the fact remains: I kinda liked it, and not as a guilty pleasure either. It’s so fascinatingly unlike just about every other “actor turned director” motion picture (read: middling script-pieces where visuals are wholly meaningless to the finished project) that it’s hard to deny in terms of sheer vigor. Going in, I expected a tepid Oscar piece with a showy but ultimately safe role for JGL in the “I’m Acting!!!” vein, backed by flat, uninspired directing that served no purpose other than to get JGL and the script up on screen for us. That is most definitely not what I got, and for this reason, if nothing else, Don Jon is a shockingly welcome surprise.
In fact, it’s downright inspired. For all the film’s faults, a lack of visual panache is not among them. JGL’s directorial work is astute, hungry, and character-based, even if it’s often still decidedly sloppy and over-eager. If I wasn’t so guilty of over-using it and pushing myself (poorly, I might add) to stop using it, I might throw out the “i” word (hint: ends with “mpressionism”. His most effective trick is to cut through any sense of narrative ebb and flow by repeating shots throughout the film, capturing a mundane day-to-day nature to the story that showcases time for Jon as series of repeating moments rather than a cohesive story with structure and event. The repetition is applied liberally, and even self-indulgently, but it’s quite effective in a ferocious way all things considered.
Elsewhere, there are numerous little tricks thrown in that reek a bit too much of “look at me, I have a camera” and which could distract from the story if it weren’t so problematic to begin with. Instead, almost by happenstance, they distract from the flaws of the story and instead work on their own terms, as bits of garnish or flair that capture emotion in their very bones (my favorite involves a time-lapse bit of stop-motion that shows JGL in bed stricken still as his sheets and pillows crawl all around him in a decidedly creepy fashion). More generally, he has a lot of fun changing his style between archly clinical for “Jon as a dehumanized beast of a man” and cheeky movie-star glam for “Jon and Barbara as a surface-level movie star couple that doesn’t really connect below the surface”.
It’s quite a lot, and it almost has the effect of making the whole film out to be a technical study more than a finished product. If someone told me it didn’t work, I wouldn’t disagree. But it’s so wholly at odds with everything pretty-faced actors turned directors know to be true about filmmaking that it attains a feverish effervescence, a high brought on by JGL’s pure filmmaking joy and rigorous, vigorous self-exploration of filmmaking techniques. The whole thing is a bit of pop fluff, and it definitely shows that he’s experimenting with more than he can handle, but it’s such a wonderfully sensory experience that the whole thing attains a certain studied fascination that just keeps the whole thing alert and propulsive even when it is against its better interests as narrative. It’s not a great film, but it’s an exciting work that accomplishes what it set out to do: announce JGL as a fearless force to watch behind the camera, a figure wholly uninterested in playing it safe, and a director to watch.