What a way to kick off the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. I started off breaking what I assumed would be one of my cardinal rules. I didn’t want to see anything that would open too soon after I returned back to Cincinnati. The plan and purpose was to scout for films that would roll out later in the awards season or, better still, into the next calendar year. I imagined catching the rare gems that would trickle in during the off-season — the late-winter and early-spring surprises that would carry us forward.
So, what made me throw in the towel before the game even started?
The short answer to that question would be Joseph Gordon-Levitt. There’s something intriguing about his onscreen presence, which, for me, has nothing to do with his early days as a precocious television kid. I don’t remember him from that two-episode stint on Family Ties back in 1988, his 12-episode run on the aborted revival of Dark Shadows in 1991 (and be honest, you don’t care about that either), or his breakthrough on 3rd Rock from the Sun.
I prefer to approach the Gordon-Levitt oeuvre solely from his work on the big screen. The fresh-faced kid (Cameron James) from 10 Things I Hate About You, which featured a head-scratching turn from Heath Ledger that made me believe there would one day be something special about him. And then, with the back-to-back work with Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin) and Rian Johnson (Brick), it seemed as if Gordon-Levitt was putting us all on notice that he had higher aspirations for himself and for his audience.
He knew he wanted to go to some far out places and he was daring us to go along for the ride. Would we believe him as a baby-faced drugged-out doctor-for-hire in love and lust with a woman named Precious (Mo’Nique in Lee Daniels’ Shadowboxer), an amnesiac lookout (in The Lookout), an Iraq war soldier in Stop-Loss?
All of the crisscrossing along the character map only made it easier to buy into the seemingly more conventional roles, like his heartbreaking turn in (500) Days of Summer and even the adept young techie in Christopher Nolan’s dream team caper Inception. There’s a quickness of mind and a plugged-in accessibility in him that is perfectly suited to this modern world of performance. He is the definition of a chameleon for the 21st century. He can woo us with song and dance, disappear under the grit and grime or inspire us to run with (and alongside) him for our lives. He’s our feisty little Everybrother.
It’s no shock, really, that he would dive headlong into the idea of love in the age of Internet porn with Don Jon. He takes the deep plunge here, writing and directing as well as appearing in nearly every scene as a Jersey playboy named Jon who has a way with the ladies but can’t quite seem to get the same kind of satisfaction from flesh and blood women that comes from the immediate and specific virtual pleasures of porn. When Jon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), it looks like a game change is on the horizon.
Don Jon presents an unfiltered Jon, a guy who loves his porn, his friends (Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke), his family (Tony Danza, Glenne Headly and Brie Larson), his porn, his faith in God (typified by his pious attendance at weekly confessions), his workout routine and, in case I failed to mention it, his porn. Porn is an obsession with him, much as it was for the characters in Shame and Thanks for Sharing, two other recent films that delved into sex addiction in different ways.
What sets Gordon-Levitt’s film apart from those two is his real affection for Jon, who tells his own story. Jon lives in a small world (and he’s the big stud fish), but we get the sense that he’s open to being transplanted into a larger body of water, a higher consciousness. He’s a bumbling pleasure hound, but he’s also no hairy-palmed fool. Gordon-Levitt lets us see the dawning awareness in this guy who we might not pay attention to if we passed him on the street.
And that’s what makes Don Jon work as a feature. It’s not a home run by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an assured project from a filmmaker who knows how to make us believe in characters as people. He’s even skilled enough to make a critic pitch his rules, sit back and enjoy the not-so-small pleasure of life on the screen. Opens wide Sept. 27. (R) Grade: B
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