News Column

St. Joseph News-Press, Mo., Shea Conner column

September 27, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 27--If I could submit nominations for Best Picture at the Oscars this year, my first would go to "Don Jon." Actually, I would've sent it in way back in March.

In the spring, I attended around 20 indie film premieres at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Of course, the label "indie film" immediately brings about thoughts of movies that feel more like experiments than crowd-pleasers, so I never really knew what to expect when I entered the theater.

Admittedly, I did see a few duds. Movies like the off-kilter drama "Improvement Club" and the foreign documentary "F--for Forest" started with highly unique premises, but they rarely took them anywhere interesting. And then there was Rob Zombie's "Lords of Salem," which reached its creative peak when its dreadlocked protagonist licked a demon baby because ... why the hell not?

The SXSW organizers saved the most anticipated movie premieres for evening and weekend timeslots at the lovely Paramount Theatre, and the actors and filmmakers were more than happy to show up and talk with the audience afterward. The premieres of the "Evil Dead" remake and "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" kicked off the nine-day event and brought out some big crowds. So did "Spring Breakers," which James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez all attended. I went to see "Mud" and "Sound City" on their big nights at the Paramount.

One of the most buzzed-about premieres of the week was for a film called "Don Jon's Addiction." It didn't surprise me that people were yapping about the possibility of Scarlett Johansson making an appearance in Austin that week (she didn't). What shocked me was that more people were really looking forward to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's debut as both a writer and director. After lighting up the screen in "Looper," "The Dark Knight Rises," "Inception" and "50/50," it became clear in the Texan capitol that Gordon-Levitt had jumped the wall separating promising actors and legitimate stars -- and he pulled off the feat while enticing critics and other film intellectuals.

When I arrived at the Paramount on the night of the premiere, the line for those wearing VIP wristbands stretched more than a block away from the theater. Even the people who bought tickets to the premiere of "Don Jon's Addiction" were turned away at the door because those with special credentials filled every single seat (I thanked my lucky stars when the doors closed just a minute or two after I got in).

Boy, did JGL deliver for all those big-shots, reporters and bloggers.

"Don Jon" (the movie was later given a shortened title) wonderfully balances comedy and drama as Gordon-Levitt plays a New Jersey meathead who cares about three things: his body, his religion and his porn. But when he begins dating the most beautiful girl he's ever seen (in this case, Johansson), his porn addiction leads to dissatisfaction. Not only is she grossed out by his habits, but even worse, he realizes he's incapable of making a lasting connection with a woman.

This movie approaches the perils of objectification like none that came before it. Throughout the film, Don Jon does whatever he wants without pausing to examine the humanity around him. He works out constantly, but not because it's what's good for him, it's because he merely wants to look good. He goes to church, but it's not to dig deeper into his faith, it's so he can confess his sins and leave the cathedral with an artificially clean conscience. He enjoys sex, but it's not to engage with women on a personal level, it's because he likes the way it feels. And that's why he really loves his porn -- it's his respite from the reality that women aren't sex-starved beings and have needs and desires that aren't completely superficial.

While that sounds like heavy stuff, "Don Jon" proves to be quite funny, relatable and entertaining. Gordon-Levitt deserves kudos for taking on an arrogant jock role that few would have ever expected him to play. He deserves more praise for guiding Julianne Moore and Tony Danza to some raw but stellar performances.

After the SXSW premiere, Gordon-Levitt and a few of his castmates fielded questions from the audience for about half an hour. The first-time director spoke with poise, intelligence and charm, but most importantly, he spoke from his heart. I bet you could've counted the number of people who left the Paramount unimpressed on your right hand.

Just think: That was the cute kid from "Angels in the Outfield." That was the awkward teenager from "3rd Rock From the Sun." That was the high school sadsack from "10 Things I Hate About You." And now he has earned his place as one of the top draws in Hollywood.

"Don Jon" opens today at the Regal Cinemas here in St. Joseph. It's the best feature film I've seen so far in 2013, and I highly recommend you check it out -- if not to watch an entertaining movie about a widespread social issue, then to witness a great effort by one of the most talented figures of the Millennial Generation.

Shea Conner can be reached at shea.conner@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.

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(c)2013 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

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