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AUSTIN - It seems fitting that Joseph Gordon Levitt's first feature film would play at the SXW film festival. There's something about this fest that feel different than any other I attend. I think of Sundance as a festival that likes to anoint the "next big thing." Cannes seems to me to believe that the people they invite are already anointed. Toronto is a glut of movies, pretty much everything that's ready at the time, and everything you can imagine is represented there. But South By Southwest feels to me like a party, like as long as you have a camera and you made something, they're interested in having you here so you can see how it plays. Everyone's invited, and that same attitude seems to be built into the DNA of Levitt's entire HitRECord initiative, which is more than just a website. It's a community of people who are constantly playing with the tools that have transformed filmmaking for the 21st century.
When actors direct, there's obviously a version of that which is more vanity project than anything, and while I've seen painless versions of that, it's always a little frustrating to me to sit through. The good news is that you'd have to be openly hostile and simply not watching to think that what Levitt's done here is anything less than a genuine work by a real filmmaker. He's got a strong sense of voice, and he is exceptionally good at communicating visual information clearly. This is a film where every cut is an additional brush stroke, where he's trying to paint a very specific portrait of the way things work between men and women. Just as I think Joe Swanberg's "Drinking Buddies" offered up some real wisdom about a particular dynamic, Levitt has a very specific idea about the relationship between the porn that men watch and the romantic comedies that women watch. It's not a connection I've ever directly made, but once you see the way Levitt makes the connection, it's a hard point to argue.
The film is sharply written, sharply performed, and it's often incredibly funny. Levitt stars as Don Jon, a Guido who seems to have just strutted off of "Jersey Shore," and he's transformed himself physically for the role. His philosophy is simple: he loves women, but he loves porn more, and he explains why. The way he details the ritual, the everyday rhythms of his character's masturbatory life, he isn't looking to shock or offend. He's simply explaining what it is that this guy looks for in life. He takes plenty of women home, but the reality is never equal to the fantasy. The messy and difficult details of a real person seem to prevent Jon from making a real connection with anyone, while he can lose himself in porn completely. That's the thing he's chasing, the release he wants. He wants to lose himself.
When he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he feels like he's got a shot at making a relationship finally work. That's great news for his mother (Glenne Headley) and his father (Tony Danza), and Jon thinks it's good news for him, too. He wants to lead a life like the one his mother wants for him, with the girl and the job and the house and the family, and Barbara is everything he thinks he wants in a partner. She's beautiful, and she pushes him to go back to school, to get a better job, to be a real man. She makes him wait for sex, too, makes him work for it. There's nothing easy about Barbara, and that just makes him work even harder to impress her. By the time they do finally sleep together, he is convinced that he's in love.
But when she catches him masturbating to porn the first time, it's obvious that this is a non-negotiable point for her, and for him, it's such an ingrained part of his lifestyle that it may not be something he can quit. What unfolds from that point on is both very smart and also incredibly honest about expectations, how power works within a relationship, and what is required between two people for there to be any real intimacy. The film uses certain repeated images and certain repeated visual language to really drive home the way things work and the way it feels when things change, and it's impressive how much character he's able to convey in scene after scene.
The last movie I saw that was shot by Thomas Kloss was "Conan The Barbarian," and I would never really guess that anyone connected to that fat slice of crazy would have been capable of something as nuanced and emotionally resonant as this, but it's great work. Same is true of pretty much all of his key collaborators, and the cast gives him everything they've got as well. Johansson plays Barbara perfectly, and it's a keenly observed performance. Tony Danza earns some big laughs, as does Headley, and Brie Larson, playing Levitt's sister, plays a largely silent role that has a great payoff.
Relativity Media picked the film up for distribution, and while they definitely had to carefully trim up the use of the pornography that is cut into the film, what he uses has all of the impact even if it's not wildly explicit. I am very impressed overall, and it makes me eager to see what else Levitt has to say as a filmmaker. He's definitely someone worth supporting and encouraging, and this is one hell of a debut.
"Don Jon" will be released in theaters later this year.
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