I must say, I have to give kudos to Gordon-Levitt for doing something so seemingly mainstream yet very dark as a debut feature. Though the film is often very funny and sometimes pretty charming, Gordon-Levitt is luckily also not afraid to show his own character’s deepest flaws – it opens right with his character Jon describing in seductive, disturbing detail his porn-watching/jerking-off process and shows about as much as the movie’s hard-R rating will allow. It’s almost like a louder, flashier version of Shame at times. Much like that film, it eventually becomes something of an addiction-recovery drama, but doesn’t completely lose its charm or comedic bite. I do find it interesting how this, The World’s End and The Spectacular Now all come out so close to each other, all focusing on protagonists at various ages with varying degrees of likability, all dealing with an addiction that is unknowingly crippling them on one level or another. Don Jon isn’t as great or assured as those two, but it’s still a solid film on its own.
One thing that struck me was that even though the film is razor-focused on Jon, and almost all of the characters in the film are pretty much caricatures – Jon’s brotastic two buddies, the bimbo girlfriend always chewing on a piece of gum – they still somehow feel like real, whole people. Granted, I’ve never been to New Jersey, so maybe it is actually filled with people like this, but even though the ensemble feels highly exaggerated, it never takes you out of the picture. Tony Danza and Glenne Headly are both prime examples of this, as they embrace the more heightened parts of their roles – Danza is loud, football obsessed and can’t stop ogling Jon’s new girlfriend, Headly won’t stop bugging Jon about his love life – but they still feel real, and you never get the sense that Gordon-Levitt is being condescending towards them. I really liked that. And
The film also had a somewhat more formalistic style than you usually see in indie, character-based work on this. Some might interpret it as Gordon-Levitt trying to search for a directorial style as many debut directors do, but I didn’t sense any moments of “flashy for the sake of flashy.” Everything does a pretty good job of getting you into headspace of a man who thinks he’s happy, but has some deeper issues he’s incapable of realizing.
The main misstep is probably in the second half of the film, as we get into the typical beats of just about any addiction-recovery drama, and the movie doesn’t do too much to upend them. Julianne Moore is also misused and arguably miscast. It’s hard to get into that without spoiling too much, but unfortunately I think Moore was wasn’t the right casting choice here. Her character is one that starts on the sidelines on the story before working her way more and more into the main part of the story, which should feel surprising, but by putting such a recognizable face in the role, there’s no real surprise when that ends up happening. And the character itself is a little too two-dimensional, playing mostly in one (admittedly funny) gear for most of the film before switching to a more tragic one near the end. Moore does very solid work with the material, at least.
A very solid film debut from Gordon-Levitt. I’d love to see what he does next. – Jonathan Boehle
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