Sunday, 22 December 2013

You can’t always get what you want; General thoughts on Don Jon, on-screen addiction and film expectations

My least favourite form of film criticism is “This movie isn’t about what I wanted it to be about”. And, yet, here I am about to write this bit on Don Jon....

Who is at fault when a film seems to promise the delivery of something profound but ends up heading in a different direction? Is it you, the audience member, for misreading the director’s intention? Or, is it the film for misrepresenting itself? This question has been bugging me constantly since I saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, a movie I really, really liked for 2/3 of the way until an about-turn in its final moments that threatened to upend a significant amount of the goodwill I had for it. It was not, only, that the story’s resolution didn’t sit well with me but I felt as if the film had betrayed its own intentions and in that way became a different and less interesting entity in that last third and I kept trying to parse through why it bothered me so. And, whether any of my disappointment was justified.
Jon Martello Jr is our Don Jon, an Italian-American New Jersey born and bred lothario with the attributes you’d anticipate come with the stereotype. Overly invested in his car, his crib, his women, paradoxically religious and family conscious and especially invested in watching internet porn. The last point is of stark significance for our Jon really likes his internet porn. In the film’s opening we see him go through his routine, turning on his laptop, logging in to his profile and then watching pornography. His attention to porn, bordering on addiction, becomes an issue when his attraction to a potential conquest runs so deep they begin a relationship. As lovely as this perfect 10 of a girl is, sex with her is still not the ideal idea of sex that a lifetime of pornography has built up for him. And so, one night after sex, his girlfriend catches him at his computer watching internet porn. After some heavy pleading, and lies, she forgives for what she thinks is a single digression No more pornography, though, she warns. Or else…. And, therein rests the central conflict of the film: will Don give up his porn? Unsurprisingly, the immediate answer is no. Jon has a phone with internet connection handy. But, the larger question is should Jon have to give up his porn?

I tend to expect creators of art to have total control of every aspect of the story they’re telling. Meaning, I hope for everything within the frame should be indicative of some larger point down the road. It’s not representative of real life where every plot point isn’t fully examined, but movies are not meant to be slavish representations of the randomness of real life and for a movie that love’s its routines as much as Don Jon, it seems odd to me that it would invoke the topic of porn, dabble in some intriguing sideline character trait but not get to the crux of issues it seems to be skirting like the ethics of watching porn (admittedly, a huge topic) and trying work through why it’s an issue.

...more in this non-review of Don Jon....more on how I feel the film fails to live up to what it promises, and its MVP below...

There’s a scene late in the film when Jon and his girlfriend Barbara have a final confrontation of sorts. It’s the necessary rejoinder a film which invoke the “how should we feel about porn” needs. “Movies and porno are different, Jon. They give awards for movies.” It's a great line reading from Scarlett Johansson in one of the film' most heightened moment. It's made better by the way Jon glibly replies, “They give awards for porn, too.” It’s a climax the film feels as if it’s been working to, assessing not just the routine of porn but the reason behind it. In an earlier scene Jon takes Barbara to a romance movie and she waxes euphoric about how excellent it is and how it really shows what true love should be like. It’s not very different from Jon’s wishes that real sex could be as wild and inventive as pornography. The film seems to be decisively setting us up for the inevitable discussion. Not a defense of porn, but a necessary assessment on humans and the things we use to satisfy fantasies. With that inevitable revelation of his porn habits Don Jon reaches a turning point, but I feel that it takes the wrong road. For, actual conversation on the ethics of porn is ignored for the film to boil down to the most trite of conclusion.

Bringing addiction up as a main arc in your story demands that you do something with the arc and not abandon it. What’s the line between addiction and routines? Don goes to church every week and his sense of Catholicism amounts to his weekly confessions and receiving his weekly penance. He does his Hail Mary’s while exercising. So much promising side material is given but they end up being used as incidental bits of humour and not bits of character meant to be examined. When things reach their lowest for Jon his salvation comes in a form that seems almost like a deus ex machina. All Jon needed to curb his need for pornography was for a real woman to show him what real love was. You’ll forgive me if I felt let down by the resolution. For in a tale that suggests it has something to say about humans and fantasy, it is unfortunate when it’s dollop of real world wisdom feels like a fantasy, too. Surely, it is more than just the wrong woman that has made Jon build up an irrational expectation toward love and sex, and the film seems to fail itself by not exploring that. The worldly older woman in the form of Julianne Moore’s Esther (a lovely performance, but out of place in the film) is both not a native to New Jersey and much wiser than its other characters giving her an otherworldly, if occasionally zany, charm that seems counterintuitive to so much of what Don Jon had to say before. The biting satire, the examination of a life in routines - all abandoned. Or, maybe the point is that any misguided shlub can be saved from routine depravity with the right, wise, woman.
Either way, the conclusion ends up souring me on the film so much when for the most part Don Jon is an effective directorial debut for Gordon-Levitt. It’s a film that deserves the unfortunately ostensibly backhanded-compliment-sounding adjective of “promising”. His direction has style, his writing is especially precise in some moments and he’s very good with his actors. In fact, the very best thing about the film is a wonderful turn from Scarlett Johansson as New Jersey princess Barbara Sugarman. It is a performance that at times is wiser, and more savvy than the film itself and as great as Scarlett is on her own I'm willing to attribute some of the goodness her to the work of her director. And, yet, the way the film ultimately abandons her and its previous relentless gusto giving way to something too prosaic does not help its case in making it sit very well in my memory. It is odd how an entertaining if occasionally frenetic film seems less so when it doesn’t make good on something you expect it to.

It just makes me a bit put-out when a film has so much fodder for conversation, but ultimately has so litle to say.

(I feel slightly bad about eschewing an actual review of Don Jon in favour of this quasi op-ed. Because, I do like it. The parts I don't like were just what had be thinking the hardest. Sort of like candy that goes down easy, but leaves a bad aftertaste for days after...but, it is unfair of me, I accede, to feel upset with a film because it doesn't do what I want it to.)

Don Jon: B-*
My ramblings on film related conceits: un-gradeable 

*Perhaps I shall revisit this one-day to explain why I grade it so well, gnarly issues aside.

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