The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Don Jon

When I was in college, I sought refuge from studying by going over to my friend's dorm room one sunny afternoon. He had just popped in a porno movie. Having never actually seen one, I accepted the invitation to stay and watch. A whopping ten minutes later, I gave up on the film. (“I could be watching a real movie right now,” I thought, in true serious cinephile fashion.) Nevertheless, those ten minutes were enough to make me realize that porn was a rabbit hole that a certain type of person could easily go down. It was pure raw fantasy, stripped of all emotion, realism, and meaning. The only thing that mattered was the arousal factor. Don Jon - the directorial debut of its star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt – is about a guy who lives in that rabbit hole.

Jon Martello is a young Italian bro from Jersey who loves his family, his friends, and his church. He also loves women, many of whom he beds after nights out on the town. No matter how much sex he has or how “hot” his conquest, Jon doesn't feel completely fulfilled until he opens up his laptop and scours the internet for just the right piece of pornography to pleasure himself to. What he doesn't realize is that, like most porn addicts, he's not fully able to relate to a real woman. This becomes a problem when he meets and falls in love with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson). She has an issue that mirrors his: she loves sappy Hollywood romances and expects a real relationship to be just like the ones in the movies. Jon tries to make things work with Barbara by hiding his porn use. That doesn't exactly work. He eventually ends up confessing his dilemma to an older female student, Esther (Julianne Moore), in the night school class Barbara encouraged him to sign up for.

Don Jon may sound like a drama about pornography addiction, but it's not. It's actually a comedy (and often a very funny one) with some interesting things to say about sex and people's expectations for it. In voiceover, Jon tells us his many theories on why porn is awesome. We can see, however, that this mindset isn't really serving him well. When all he wants is a quickie with a random woman, everything is fine, but as soon as he decides he'd like something deeper, he's in trouble. For all her physical perfection and willingness to be sexually adventurous, Barbara is not a girl in an X-rated movie. She wants genuine connection – the very thing Jon doesn't know the meaning of. In following their romance, the film explores ideas of sexual compatibility, the intersection of love and lust, and the isolating nature of overindulgence in fantasy. On a satirical level, Don Jon also suggests that your typical Hollywood rom-com is its own type of pornography, peddling a different kind of fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. Just as Barbara doesn't understand Jon's obsession with sex, he doesn't understand her fascination with sweeping romance.

As an actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has worked with some of the most accomplished filmmakers in the business, including Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson, Steven Spielberg, and Spike Lee. He's obviously learned a lot from them. Don Jon is a surprisingly assured debut as a director. Gordon-Levitt uses a variety of visual flourishes, including intermittent rapid-fire porn images, to convey Jon's state of mind. This helps us feel the weight of porn's pull on him. Just as people who smoke periodically need a cigarette break, Jon needs the occasional porn break. He starts to crave it. The movie effectively puts you in the character's head, telling his tale with brisk pacing and adept use of humor.

Gordon-Levitt gives a strong performance, as well, nicely showing Jon's gradual education and growth. Johansson does fine parallel work, suggesting that Barbara's worldview may be more socially acceptable than Jon's, if just as unrealistic. Glenne Headley and Tony Danza provide comic relief as Jon's overbearing parents, while Brie Larson is hilarious as his sister, who doesn't say much until it really matters. (She's this movie's Silent Bob.) At first, Julianne Moore and her character both seem a little out of place in the movie, but that's intentional. As the plot moves forward, we understand who Esther is and why she quickly becomes an important person in Jon's life. The actress, always dependable, once again delivers nice, understated work.

Don Jon won't appeal to everyone. Some may be put off by the subject matter, others by the movie's attempts to find humor in it. If you can get into its groove, though, you'll find a perceptive story with a refreshingly mature attitude about sex. Don Jon is smart enough to know that while it can be great physically, it can be amazing when two people are on the same level mentally.

( 1/2 out of four)

Don Jon is rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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