“Don Jon” begins with a montage of real-world footage from ads, game shows, and celebrity coverage, featuring scantily clad women parading for the camera. As it speeds up, the images progress from familiar to eerie. This sets the stage for the world of the film, a hyped-up version of our reality. The movie is not only a comedy—it’s also a cautionary tale.
The film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also directs in his first time behind the camera. Though he founded the online production company hitRECord in 2005, one year after dropping out of the School of General Studies,“Don Jon” is the first feature-length project he has released.
“Don Jon” tells the story of Jersey boy Jon Martello, Jr., who lives by the philosophy that the only things that matter are “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.” Jon confesses that he likes sex on screen better than in real life, and it soon becomes clear that not only his love life, but his whole worldview, has been infected by the media.
Jon’s appearance and personality evoke characters we see in outside media—one cannot help but think of “Jersey Shore” when Gordon-Levitt takes what are already ridiculously bold personalities and pushes them further, transforming himself into a caricature, all bulky muscle, gelled hair, and misogyny.
The foil to Jon’s hard-body masculinity is Barbara Sugarman, played by Scarlett Johansson with Jessica Rabbit-scale sexuality. It’s the best performance she’s given in a while, an excellent parody of past bland bombshell roles. Jon sees her as a conquest, but it soon becomes clear that she has her own agenda that conforms to the storybook romance. Her ideals are summed up in a ridiculously saccharine romantic comedy movie-within-a-movie, featuring cameos by Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway.
Through alternating perspectives, Gordon-Levitt shows how Barbara and Jon’s personal media fixations make each see the relationship. There’s nothing personal about it—they are using each other to fulfill their own fantasy agendas.
It takes Julianne Moore, brilliantly portraying the ordinary woman, to come in and shake things up. Her character, Esther, is a stark contrast to the rest of the cast both visually and emotionally. She is older and unadorned, emotional and honest. Most of all, she makes Jon see the distortions in his own life.
And it’s good Esther intervenes when she does—the beginning of “Don Jon” is not easy to watch. The endless montage of objectified females feels very violent. When Esther enters, the camerawork calms, and the close-ups are of eyes rather than breasts. It is a testament to Gordon-Levitt’s skill that he is able to harness the initial impact of the film to make a deeper point about our culture.
“Don Jon” is playing at AMC Loews 84th Street 6, 2310 Broadway; AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13, 1998 Broadway; and AMC Empire 25, 234 W. 42nd St.