Tackling the sensitive and provocative issue of pornography addiction is a brave move for any director, even more so if it’s your debut feature and one that’s sure to receive heavy scrutiny due to your impressive resume of on-screen acting roles. This is the mammoth undertaking Joseph Gordon-Levitt has handed himself with Don Jon (2013).Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) is known as ‘The Don’ due to his impressive ability to woo the ladies at his local nightclub. However, despite such countless nights of promiscuous digressions, Jon has never been able to truly lose to one woman himself whilst fornicating.
That is until he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) ,a ‘dime’ of a broad (Jon and his leery, misogynistic chums score girls out of ten based solely on their ‘assets’) who fails to fall for his archaic, prehistoric advances. He decides to play the long game, hopeful that this pristine image of sexuality is the key to his inability to become truly satisfied by traditional intercourse. However, their fleeting romance only highlights Jon’s problems further, leaving him alone to decipher the blurred dichotomy between sex and ‘adult entertainment’ that consumes his life.
Whereas Steve McQueen’s study of sex addiction, Shame (2011), took a more obtuse and contemplative approach to a similar issue, Gordon-Levitt’s debut is a far more cartoonish and blasé dissection, eventually morphing into an accessible American rom-com – although the film’s opening montage of pornography and cinema make this far from the perfect date movie. Pulpy, trashy and heavily stylised, Don Jon has all the trademarks of a talented débutante director trying to mold his own distinct identity through unique and carefully rendered stylistic flourishes. The start-up sound of an Apple Mac has never sounded so sinister, yet there’s a sense that a more conservative approach would have perhaps born greater fruits thematically.
Gordon-Levitt has clearly made the most of his time in front of the camera, and implements what he’s learnt thus far into his debut feature. He’s also managed to call in favours from Tinseltown for some delightful cameos, and you’d be hard pressed to find an inaugural American indie that Johansson would be willing to objectify herself for. However, despite this ‘silver spoon’ component of the film’s production, Gordon-Levitt’s initial outing in the director’s chair never feels overly self-flagellating and has the confident feel of an assured first step, which promises a bright future behind the camera.
It’s a shame then that when Julianne Moore enters the fray (the only real character in this composite of overblown caricatures), this brave social study falls into a formulaic life lesson that has all the usual sentiment trappings of a Hollywood melodrama. Fun, bawdy, yet strangely superficial, Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon is a promising stepping stone, yet far from the groundbreaking introduction it’s raunchy opening perhaps suggests.
The 2013 Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. For more of our Berlinale coverage, simply follow this link.