Is it possible to make a feminist film about a porn addict? Viewers of "Don Jon's Addiction," the screenwriting and directing debut of actor Joseph Gordon Levitt, may find themselves arguing the point after watching this raunchy yet well-intentioned comedy about a New Jersey Lothario who can't stop pleasuring himself with the help of Internet smut.
At the Q&A following this morning's Sundance screening of the film, Levitt, who also tackles leading-man duties, invoked his mother's feminism and the compassionate philosophy of Martin Buber as he explained the film's genesis. "I wanted to tell a story about love, and in my observation what's always getting in the way of love is how people objectify each other," Levitt said. "Boys do it to girls and girls to it to boys."
Levitt plays Jon, a gym-toned guido who divides life's pleasures into a categorized list of "things": his body, his apartment, his car, his family, his church, his porn. He's quick to emphasize that he doesn't have any problem attracting flesh-and-blood sex partners -- in fact, he's so skilled that his friends call him Don Jon. But only in the presence of porn can he truly lose himself. "I think it's true that a lot of guys are learning what they think love and sex are supposed to be from the unlimited amount of porn available on the Internet," Levitt said.
But women have their own objectifying impulses, rooted, in Levitt's view, in standard-issue romantic comedies. Scarlett Johansson plays Barbara Sugarman, a gum-snapping, booty-shaking Garden State goddess whose ideas about relationships owe more than a little to the rom-com rule book. Skillfully delaying the sexual gratification Jon is so used to finding with his conquests, she lures him out of his one-night-stand comfort zone and teaches him the meaning of something that feels like love. But in time, her ideas about love and sex are revealed to be as artificial and inflexible as his.
Julianne Moore plays the film's most unexpected character, a middle-aged pot-smoking student at the night school Barbara more or less forces Jon to attend as a prerequisite to sex. Without giving too much away, Moore's character gradually emerges as the true representative of those lofty values Levitt absorbed from his mother and Martin Buber.
In his directing and screenwriting debut, Levitt exhibits an impressive command of narrative, tone, tempo and structure. The film gets substantial comic mileage out of a series of repetitive sequences that underscore not just the paradoxical extremes of Jon's existence -- he's a relentless womanizer who never goes a week without confessing his transgressions to his parish priest -- but also the routines that simultaneously comfort and confine him.
The funniest scenes are those that take place around Jon's family's dinner table, where Levitt and Tony Danza, as his father, face off, dressed in matching white tank tops. When Barbara comes to visit, it's immediately clear that father and son share an excessive appreciation for the female form.
The buzz around the film has been strong, and it's likely to find distribution and a commercial release. Before that can happen, however, its many montages of pornographic video clips will probably have to be edited in order to ward off a dreaded NC-17 rating. That said, Levitt assured the audience that the film is not as explicit as it seems: "It actually feels like you're seeing more than you are, and we spent a lot of time carefully … cropping the clips so technically you're not seeing anything you wouldn't see in a rated-R movie," Levitt told the audience. "We decided to take out all the penises and vaginas, and that's what we have here."