Joseph Gordon-Levitt has turned out to be quite a good director. He has a very powerful style of editing and incorporating sound and music cues, with a light touch that’s so important in communicating with an audience. He also wrote a pretty good script.
Gordon-Levitt also stars in Don Jon’s Addiction as Jon, a New York Italian ladies man. He can get any woman he wants in a club, but he also likes to watch internet porn. In fact, he likes the porn more. However, he really wants to nail Barbara Sugerman (Scarlett Johansson) and she won’t sleep with him right away so he works the long game. His words, not mine.
Jon’s introduction is a sort of Training Day/Ferris Bueller explanation of his philosophy, and a manifesto on Gordon-Levitt’s directorial style. Club music becomes a siren when Jon spots a target, and his editing of porn clips, sex scenes and computer sounds convey everything in a clear, energetic way. Gordon-Levitt the director gives it a playful tone. He actually makes the porn look glamorous and the sex scenes unpleasant.
Of course this isn’t going to be a pure romp. It’s going to be an exploration of Jon’s issues with relationships, but it’s not going to be preachy. You get hints of how, even at his best, Jon just objectifies women because he keeps saying of Barbara, “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” “Thing,” not even “woman” or “person.” He means it as a compliment and a reason for him to break some of his own rules or attempt a long-term connection, but it’s one of many behaviors that gives him away. He’s all ego, and not just as a charismatic pickup line. He lives it. His workouts, his clothes, his dialogue with friends, even his religion is all something he does in service of the myth of Jon.
Johansson is incredibly seductive as Barbara teases Jon a little, while suggesting he take night classes. He takes them, and then she pushes a little further without giving Jon everything he wants. When she catches him with porn, she is disgusted and makes him give it up. I love that the romantic comedy MacGuffin is porn. Let’s see Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl make a rom-com about porn coming between mismatched lovers!
Now, Barbara would be unreasonable with this request if Jon were otherwise a decent guy, but in this case it’s like: that’s your issue? Not the narcissism or materialism? Okay, rail against the porn. But you’ll notice from some of her other behavior, she’s trying to fix him. That might seem like a good influence for a guy like Jon, but really it’s just as manipulative as what he does. It’s fun because Jon kind of deserves to be manipulated back, not because of the porn, but because he’s a womanizing objectifier of women.
Barbara could be a problematic character if this were one of those “relationships suck and women are evil” movies, but it’s not. It’s one of those rare “like attracts like and if you act a certain way you attract a certain type of person” movies, so Barbara is a fitting foil to Jon. It would be too easy if Barbara were a total sweetheart being wronged by Jon. She’s the person Jon has brought upon himself, so I see it as a function of him, not a comment on women in general. There might have been a movie where both Jon and Barbara evolve, but this is Jon’s journey so he’s the one who gets to grow.
Jon gets it from his family. His father (Tony Danza!) and mother (Glenne Heady!!) are all ego too, quick to anger, demanding he fulfill their expectations of him. Jon goes to church every week to confess all the sex and masturbation he’s had. It’s not that "all" Catholics use confession as an excuse to sin, but it’s a possible influence in connection with all his other influences: family, fellow club friends, a meaningless service job that only provides him the means to live his lifestyle. That’s good character study, although I would have liked to see some detail on said job, since it does afford him a surprisingly affluent New York lifestyle. It would also be nice to know what he’s studying in night class, but that’s also generic.
Once again, Gordon-Levitt created a distinct character with all the details of his voice, the body, the posture, the hair and the clothes. He sounds sleazy, not just because of the “How You Doin’” accent, but the tone and leering nature of his conversations. He is totally ripped, and Danza is too, which informs again how Jon takes after his family. In one scene, Jon Sr. displays how possessive he is about his own wife. And look, they even have the same name because his father’s ego is so big he had to take every opportunity to mold Jon in his own image.
At that night school, Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore), who ultimately delivers the moral of the movie. Morals are tricky but it works here because it’s a mature moral and it’s Julianne Moore delivering it.
I hope I didn’t give too much away but I’m really only talking about the elements that make Don Jon’s Addiction a compelling character study. You can’t really spoil a character study, you just analyze the themes and hope that makes others interested in taking their own look at the events of the film and coming to their own conclusions. I haven’t told you what Barbara does, so when you see it you may think I’ve misinterpreted her. Don Jon’s Addiction is the kind of Sundance movie you crave to see, the kind that can spark conversation and make it a difficult wait until it actually gets distributed so you can talk about it with all your friends back home.
And check out these other reviews from Sundance 2013:
Who is Dayani Cristal?; starring Gael Garcia Bernal
Two Mothers; starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts
Austenland; starring Keri Russell
Emmanuel and the Truth About Fishes; starring Kaya Scodelario
Virtually Heroes; produced by Roger Corman
Breathe In; starring Felicity Jones and Guy Pierce
Inequality for All; featuring Robert Reich
Blue Caprice; starring Isaiah Washington and Tim Blake Nelson
Fill the Void; starring Renana Raz
Running From Crazy; featuring Mariel Hemingway
Wrong Cops; starring Steve Little
Hell Baby; starring Rob Corddry
Stoker; starring Nicole Kidman
Escape from Tomorrow; shot without permits at Disney World
Before Midnight; starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
We Are What We Are; starring Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner
Afternoon Delight; starring Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple
Ass Backwards; starring Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael
I Used to Be Darker; starring Deragh Campbell
Magic Magic; starring Juno Temple
Prince Avalanche; starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch
Sweetwater; starring January Jones, Jason Isaacs and Ed Harris
Crystal Fairy; starring Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman
S-VHS; sequel to found footage horror film V/H/S
Lovelace; starring Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard and Sharon Stone
The East; starring Brit Marling and Alexander Saarsgaard
After Tiller, about abortion doctor George Tiller
Citizen Koch, about The Koch Brothers and campaign finance contributions
Gangs of Wasseypur, a 5 1/2 hour Indian crime epic
In Fear, a horror movie set entirely within a car
The Rambler, starring Dermot Mulroney
What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love, about a school for the blind and deaf
Upstream Color; starring Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.