Don Jon: an unholy mess of a film

David Bowden

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Like a lot of people, I like the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Since he burst on to our screens as a long-haired teenager in sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, we’ve watched him transform from awkward teen heartthrob to offbeat movie star in such challenging indie films as Mysterious Skin and Brick, and more interesting mainstream hits as Inception. Even so, it is still surprising that his first foray as a director in Don Jon provides one of the most disturbing films of the year: a vivid psychological portrait of a lifelong celebrity, determined to do good but so alienated from contemporary society he can’t hope to make a meaningful human connection. As tortured psychosexual roman à clefs go, it’s up there with Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye for Generation Y.

Don Jon is nominally a romantic comedy about a young working-class Italian American lothario who, despite his enormous success with women, can’t kick his online pornography habit. Despite his furious attempts at self-discipline – through obsessive cleanliness, exercise and regular trips to Catholic confession – he can’t restrain himself from compulsive onanism, to the eventual destruction of meaningful relationships and imperilling a future career. It is only through the Madonna-whore figure of a grieving middle-aged widow that he finds a path towards salvation.

It is an unusually angry film for the modern age: an excoriating anti-Catholic tract, which paints Rome’s adherents as a peculiarly warped group of sexual deviants. It is a world in which infantilised men are enslaved by their own deep sexual guilt towards their mothers and women are sex-hating crones only interested in using intercourse to ensnare fellas into the castrating confines of familial domesticity.

Okay, it’s probably fair to say it wasn’t meant to turn out like this. Don Jon is really an attempt to update Seventies-era Woody Allen for the twenty-first-century world of conflicted sexual liberalism. It’s an all-too-sincere attempt to make a lighthearted film which tries to undercut the moral panic around online pornography (its appeal is mostly idle escapism rather than rampaging misogyny) while providing a warming moral message that it’s better to engage in imperfect, but real, adult relationships rather than your own spunky hand and it’s a bad habit you really should grow out of.

Yet, boy oh boy, does it go horribly wrong. Gordon-Levitt writes, directs and stars in the film: it has all the hallmarks of a project where nobody – really, nobody – cast a critical eye over proceedings. The Italian Catholic thing is largely thrown in because, y’know, it’s an update of the classic Don Juan tale and it lets the star, and Scarlett Johansson, do entertaining and convincing impressions of the guidos and girls from Jersey Shore. Yet the sight of these two well-educated, super-privileged Hollywood stars essentially dragging up as tacky working-class kids for a giggle leaves a sour taste.

Throw in some fantastically retrograde sexual politics – apparently twenty-first-century girls from Long Island don’t do blow jobs, or fuck you outside of the missionary position unless you put a ring on it – and some unpleasant sneering at the stupid pleasures of the masses (Gordon-Levitt ropes in his mates Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum for a cheap riff on dumb rom-coms) and you get this bizarre mess of a sex comedy. It is also, fatally, not very funny.

It’s a shame because with such an excellent cast this could have been an enjoyable attempt at getting under the skin of twenty-first-century male sexuality, and the surprising allure of online porn when the real stuff has never been more readily available. But, ironically for its subject matter, Gordon-Levitt is too easily pleased with himself to properly focus on the task in hand.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.

Watch the trailer for Don Jon

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