Like many a movie, American and otherwise, Don Jon has sex on the brain. This much we clearly know from the git-go, as our self-narrating hero (or anti-hero) explains in no uncertain terms about his interest in the particulars of pornography and carnal exploits with the ladies. He is a simple man, a New Jersey twentysomething with a clear index of life’s most important things — “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls … my porn.”
As if to illustrate the comforting continuum of our protagonist’s life, writer/director/actor Gordon-Levitt’s weirdly fascinating film follows a hypnotically minimalist mise-en-scène. Echoing shots and scenes bring us repeatedly back to his sin-cleansing rituals in the Catholic church confessional, in the gym (reciting the “Lord’s Prayer” while pumping iron), and in his habitual plunges into sexual activity — in bed with live humans, or virtually, with porn scenes punctuating the film’s flow, like titillating tics in our hero’s brain.
All of this may seem to add up to a less-than-savory way to spend two hours in a movie theater. Surprisingly, though, what unfolds in the film, and what dignifies its sleazy means to an end, is the narrative arc of a deeper awakening of sex and love, as he grapples through an actual relationship maze with Scarlett Johansson and the older, wiser, deeper tutelage of Julianne Moore.
Strangely enough, what makes this one of the more inventive quirks of the season is that Don Jon is by turns unusually frank and explicit, while also being one of the more artistically individualistic rite-of-passage movies in recent memory. Gordon-Levitt lavishes us with lasciviousness but also asks our forgiveness and attention for the underlying theme at hand. The real story here is a man’s meandering and self-deceptive path to redemption. At the same time, the careful structure and language of the film’s style lures us into a state of awe for the disciplined sight-and-sound matters at hand.
Sex sells and is an endless source of obsession. But, as seen here, it can also be a clever means to redress a multitude of cinematic sins.