“Don Jon” is a sort of “Saturday Night Fever” for the twenty-teens. Or maybe its actually a little more like “Urban Cowboy.” Writer and director and long-time celebrity Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the John Travolta part.
Gordon-Levitt’s working-class New Jersey is like Travolta’s working-class Brooklyn, except that the contemporary character can afford a vintage muscle car and spends his night-club evenings successfully picking up girls rather than doing demonstration dancing on a lighted floor.
Like Tony Manero, Gordon-Levitt’s Jon spends a lot of time with his Italian-American family. Like Manero he is neat to a fault, almost persnickety. But while Manero seems to yearn for additional wealth and social status, Jon is really only taking a college class to please his new girlfriend, Barbara (played broadly and with relish by Scarlett Johansson).
She’s in the process of remaking him to suit herself. Why does he clean his apartment? Why doesn’t he hire a made? When they’re married he won’t be allowed to keep things neat.
Meanwhile Jon continues to spend some time every day looking at pornography on the internet and self-gratifying. In voice-over narration, he argues that porn is actually more satisfactory than is sex, largely because one needn’t compromise to please a partner when one is enjoying blue videos.
Now Jon is a regular at church, which means he goes to confession a lot in this movie. His penance seems to always be about the same, almost no matter how many instances of extra-marital intercourse and computer-assisted onanism he admits to.
He also joins his friends in rating the girls they see at the disco. Bedding good-looking strangers has been his favorite game, next to watching sex acts on his laptop, for a long time. But he hasn’t learned much about being friends with women.
This begins to change when an older female student in his night class introduces herself to him. Esther (Julianne Moore) lost a husband and son to a car wreck only a little over a year before. She needs little human contact and seems to understand Jon. They become lovers.
But that isn’t what causes Barbara to dismiss Jon. Its the porn watching. Her self-righteousness over this is ironic, because she is a romantic movie fan, as devoted to that fake medium as Jon is to pornhub.com. Here I think Gordon-Levitt is over-estimating the devotion of younger women to ritual chick flics. But, then, I have for a long time thought of greeting cards as meeting the definition of pornography—the communication of human emotions made into a commercial undertaking.
One delightful turn-up in “Don Jon” is that his otherwise silent and “device” dependent sister defends Jon when his parents beg him to seek some accommodation with Barbara. Good for her. But otherwise this is not a movie with the sort of detail that makes it feel even as rich as did the late seventies Travolta movies.
In “DJ” as in “SNF,” the exploitation of hyperactive, dialect-speaking “guidos” (to use the term from the Jersey Shore television show) puts a lot of distance between viewer and subject. While there are some basic qualities that we all share, it is more difficult for many of us to see common denominators in National Geographic films about aboriginals than it is for us to understand what fictional Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire’s life has to do with ours.
And, then, given that “Don Jon” is neither funny nor sexy, one has to rate it a moral victory for young Gordon-Levitt, but not necessarily a must-see for Kansas college kids.