03 October 2013

THE INTERNET IS FOR PORN

I think that I tend to root for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in most things, being as he is a largely talented (though at times unadventurous) actor with an apparent desire to do off-kilter things on the grounds that art is better off when things are interesting. I also tend to find actors-turned-directors to have a really problematic and limited sense of what movies are beyond flat panels where actors say lines, so the knowledge that Gordon-Levitt was making his feature debut as director and screenwriter with Don Jon has, in general, left me with a big steaming plate of trepidation.

The good news first: Don Jon is pretty okay. Maybe even better than that, though it suffers from JGL-the-director being so concerned with how he was putting together his film that he let JGL-the-actor get a little bit out of control, while also putting his name to a film that has so, so many ideas, and it makes sure that you see the work that went into fleshing out each and every single one of them. Let us say, for starters, the Gordon-Levitt obviously has an affection for the filmmakers of the French New Wave, and has hungrily copied much of their playbook with perhaps more energy than discipline. Percussively-edited repetition of lines, images, and moments have their place in this story, which is presented from the opening narration as the story of a man who thrives on uninterrupted patterns and routine (the film comes to us as a comedy about porn addiction, but the secret hiding in plain sight is that the main character is probably suffering from some kind of undiagnosed compulsive disorder), but instead of drawing attention to the main character's psychological state, the style tends for the most part to draw attention first to itself. The result is a film with tense, ironic energy in the way that scenes flow and shots collide, but in a way that feels a bit overfamiliar and safe, like this is the way you're "meant" to tell this kind of story.

That story, by the way, doesn't make Gordon-Levitt's job any easier, since as screenwriter, he's trying to cover an awful lot of ground that (not that he's looking to me for career advice, but as I stop to ponder this all, I really do wish that he'd started off with a screenplay for someone else to direct, before diving headlong into two new and daunting tasks at once). Don Jon is, depending on the scene and even the specific lines within the scene, a story of an entitled jackass being confronted with himself and obliged to become more of a decent human being; an arch, hip romantic comedy about the way that sex and relationships work today (though it strikes me that the film reveals a certain mid-'00s level of technological savvy that betrays the author of the mid-to-late-20s characters as being, himself, five years older than they are; a critical five years it is, too); a dramedy about how people can be crippled by addiction into lives of shallow routine and comfort; a lazy parody of New Jersey (or perhaps a brilliantly subversive parody of how New Jersey is portrayed in the media, but I think that's pushing it - sometimes, you need a douchey bro in your picture, and the easiest way to put that over is "New Jersey guido"); and a satire of the way that women are depicted in American popular culture as readily available sex objects. Perhaps its my ideological bias showing if I confess that I thought that the last of these was the most effective element, and I wish it made up more of the whole after a terrific opening montage that finds no culturally meaningful distinction between pornography and the virtually nonexistent outfits worn by women in advertising and entertainment; though perhaps it's because this thread is explored so briefly that it works so consistently.

That's a lot of different thematic concerns to drive after over the course of just 90 minutes, even for a seasoned veteran, and if nothing else, Gordon-Levitt's ambition is faultless. The execution is almost inevitably wobbly, starting with the director's own performance, and especially his performance of the omnipresent voiceover narration, which sounds like a completely different accent than the one the actor uses for his onscreen appearances, and is even more cartoonish and aggravating. That's quite an achievement, given that Gordon-Levitt's take on New Jersey masculinity as the titular Jon is so broad and loud, going beyond "this man is, himself, a shallow cartoon version of a human being" into "I have completely forgotten how to modulate". The performance underneath that accent is largely fine, with the character's voluminous privilege and self-regard feeling settled and lived-in, and his unexpected bolt of high romanticism giving him actual pleasure as an emotional novelty, above and beyond the pleasure of romance itself. But when the surfaces are as much a liability as they are in this case, subtle undercurrents aren't worth as much.

Thankfully, almost everyone else in the cast is better, with Tony Danza's own brand of "Ayyyyyy, waddafuck, Im from Noo Joyrsee here" bombast as Jon's dad, while suggesting a genetic component to being an alarming exaggeration of Jersey Shore stereotypes, being the chief element contained within that "almost". In fact, what occurs to me only now, and makes me wonder if there's something deliberate to it, is that the great performance in Don Jon are all given by women: Glenne Headley as Jon's ebullient mother, full of love and tacky condescension is the good version of Danza's performance; Brie Larson, as his silent, phone-addicted sister, has a part that telegraphs itself too neatly (she so conspicuously doesn't speak that it would have been a fatal shock if she didn't get to utter a single line of film-clarifying wisdom in the last third), but the actress salvages it with priceless reaction shots and body language - she's the funniest thing about a movie that keeps wondering exactly how funny it wants to commit to being.

The real treasures here, though are Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansson; the former as a classmate of Jon's at night school who provides the movie with its one incarnation of warm, messy humanism, the first time that this movie of lust and passion actually shows us a person with authentic, emotional desires; it's an awkward, sweet character that Moore carries off perfectly, and if the weird final act works at all, it is almost solely because Moore has such immense warmth about her in this part, even at her weirdest and most confounding, that we can totally believe the choices made by multiple characters that seem entirely contrary to how real people behave. Still, she can't begin to wrest away Best in Show honors from Johansson, whose work is, simply, one of the best acts of character creation of 2013. She plays, to begin with, a flawless embodiment of the shrill, gaudy New Jersey princess as imagined by all Americans in their darkest moments of Jersey-hating: a gum-smacking, nasal, mouth-breathing sort of figure almost too terrible for words. And then, having done this, she finds every gesture, every little smile and smirk, every unexpectedly ingenious line reading that the part affords, to takes this cartoon and make her seem alive, affectionate, likable, and bright. That is, to play a caricature and also a totally believable and attractive person at the same time. And then she navigates a script that presents her character as a function of Jon's perspective, so that her expressed personality and mood in any given moment is more about his psychology than hers. It's a magnificent achievement in all ways. Don Jon is fun and witty throughout, but it only completely comes to life in sharp, dazzling ways every time Johansson comes onscreen, and when was the last time we could say that about this actor?

The rest of the film absolutely does not, and probably can not live up to that performance. It's frequently smart and too-frequently slick; it challenges male self-regard in ways that are funny and not haranguing, without being so subtle as the Gordon-Levitt vehicle (500) Days of Summer that it can be easily misread; it lapses into stock jokes and over reliance on the word "fuck" to snatch a nervous titter out of the audience more than it should. It is, in a nutshell, a "promising debut", the kind that you like without finding any way to love, and with just enough undisciplined style that you long to see the same thing with a bit more merciless self-editing involved. Still, though, movies that skewer the male gaze with a sense of humor precisely pitched to make the males its skewering the most enthusiastic fan of the results aren't exactly ten to a penny, and Don Jon sociology is unique enough to wash away at least some of its sins of execution.

7/10

6 comments:

Too-Tickii said...

but tim

what about breaking bad

The.Watcher said...

But Tim, if the Internet is for porn, where does it leave your blog?

And furthermore, where does it leave me? I mean, I could be looking at so much porn right now, but instead I'm reading a movie review. Is there something wrong with all of us?

Thrash Til' Death said...

^This blog falls under the category of shot and camera movement analysis porn. Problem solved.

Andrew Testerman said...

Grab your d*** and double-click!

Mark said...

This will look a little weird, but I accidentally just posted this under my wife's google account, and would hate to ascribe a possibly bonkers opinion to her.

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So I saw this last night, and I liked it. I did. But today, I had this nagging thought that there's something not exactly classist about the film, but something like that. That is, I worried if it's on some level saying, "Do you, cultured filmgoer of good taste, ever wonder if meatheads and Jersey princesses have rich emotional lives under the hair gel and perfect tans? They do not. And the only way they might is if a discerning, worldly person such as yourself might open their minds to erotic foreign cinema, pad thai, baths, etc."

This is an uncharitable reading of the movie, I know, and I'm 80% sure it's not true. Still, it niggles me, especially thinking about how the end of the film finds Don and Esther carrying on their authentic relationship in, naturally, Greenwich Village.

Tim said...

Now that you've said that, I can't unsee it in the movie. It's definitely something to ponder for a bit.