TIFF 2013 – Someone Special: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s DON JON

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DON JON has an perfectly compelling premise: a pair of characters attempt to start a relationship, both of whom have been shaped by the conflicting media they’ve consumed. One is a machismo archetype, addicted to pornography (Jon, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt); the other is the ideal woman (Barbara, Scarlett Johansson), who expects her man to “be a man” – which means doing everything she asks of him. Anything less would be to spit in the face of romanticism, to fail to meet the bar that her idealized dreams (fuelled by Anne Hathaway-Channing Tatum Hollywood blockbusters) have jammed into her head. Add it up, and you’ve got the makings of a compelling dramedy. So why doesn’t the film work better?

As child-actor-turned-Hollywood-superstar Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a writer / director, DON JON shows promise. Ultimately, however, he also has some room to improve and mature behind the camera. His premise is compelling, but it’s undercut by heavy-handedness, unnecessary hyper-stylization and an overall need to drive home a message. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film; it’s quite funny, well-acted and has some really great moments. But its flaws are harmful to the overall product and reveal that maybe Gordon-Levitt isn’t quite there yet as a storyteller.

Many of the parallels between Jon’s addiction and Barbara’s love of cheesy movies are terrific. Her beliefs about romance are as warped and ill-conceived as his are, and Gordon-Levitt does a great job laying the groundwork between them: romance semiotics bleed off the screen and into Jon and Barbara’s relationship, from the grand musical cues when they kiss to the way he changes everything about himself “for her”. But when the subtext of that parallel becomes straight text, it also becomes less interesting. If Jon recognizes these parallels but she doesn’t, even when she’s called out on them, it makes both characters less interesting – Barbara because she comes across as a stubborn bitch (admittedly, intentionally so), and Jon because his realization garners her no pity in his eyes. Had his revelation been a more last-minute realization, it might have better impacted their final moments together.

Also troublesome is the dynamic between Jon and Esther (Julianne Moore), which feels unearned. Worse still, it evolves into something which had stronger emotional potential for the climax than was actually depicted on screen. Though the place that their relationship winds up rings completely true from a human perspective and serves Jon’s story well, it doesn’t really seem to deserve to get there. It also ends in a very bizarre place – somewhere neither here or there. Jon acknowledges his progress, but also acknowledges the fleetingness of it all; something which is fine in of itself, had the story taken the time to delve into what that conflict means to him as a person. But it doesn’t. It seems to want to have it both ways, so neither really works.

Even more bizarrely, the film totally wastes Brie Larson, who utters a single line of dialogue in the entire film. Granted, it is a pointed, meaningful line on which the entire final act hinges, but it’s still something that could have been handled by just about anybody. The rest of the cast is awesome (especially Tony Danza as Jon’s father), and everybody gets a chance at a laugh; it just would have been nice to see a bit more done with the talented Larson.

But overall, the film has a lot of good going for it. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, it’s sexy and clever, and Gordon-Levitt proves that he can do a good job behind the camera if only he can polish up his screenwriting a bit first.

[B-]

d.a. garabedian

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TIFF 2012 – Micro-Review: Stuart Blumberg’s THANKS FOR SHARING

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Review originally posted at The Arts Scene, here.

Stuart Blumberg’s THANKS FOR SHARING is an exercise in structured, rigid quality. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it robs the film of striving to be anything better than the admittedly-great movie that it already is. Writer/director Blumberg – best known for his screenplay on the Oscar-nominated THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT – turns in his debut offering as a director here, but never strives to take the film out of safe waters, to its detriment.

But let’s not pull any punches here – this is a very strong film, especially for a first time director. The movie clearly comes from a strong, capable hand: somebody who has a deep understanding of these characters and their motivations. There’s little in the way of experimentation or directorial depth, but that’s to be expected; Blumberg is just finding his voice as the man behind the camera (not just the man behind the page), so it’s completely understandable that the majority of his output on his directorial debut comes largely from the screenplay.

And what a screenplay it is. It doesn’t reach particularly far in any one direction, nor does it try and achieve anything other than it promises, but the screenplay for THANKS FOR SHARING is one of those rare, contemporary offerings which might as well have been designed for teaching students how to construct a film. Everything is wonderfully tight, with absolutely no fat to it whatsoever. Characters’ motivations are clear, concise and compelling, and each scene drives the plot forward in a meaningful and deftly-handled way. There is appropriate seeding of future plot developments sprinkled throughout, so that nothing feels out of place or jarring. These are all marks of a master of the cinematic word, and Blumberg’s precision as a writer more than makes up for any first-time jitters at the idea of using visuals as a language separate from the words.

Along with the script is the truly excellent cast: Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins and Gwyneth Paltrow are all perfect in their roles, and the banter and chemistry between all three is mesmerizing, delicately balancing the line between strong, human drama and comedy. Meanwhile, relative newcomers Josh Gad, Patrick Fugit and, yes, even Pink all do an absolutely stellar job with the material that is given to them – which is, of course, extremely compelling. Ruffalo steals the show out from under all of them though, and his performance as the deeply on-edge, master-of-his-own-domain Adam goes to some fairly dark places which will keep the viewer guessing well into the final act of the film. There’s not a moment wasted between any of these characters, and the dynamics between them is what makes the movie everything that it is; Blumberg may have dreamed up these people, but this is one of those cases where the actors completely take over and occupy them down to the last detail.

Unfortunately, everything else about the film just feels like a lack of ambition. There is something to be said for the eloquently constructed and perfectly structured film, but that can only get you so far. There’s interesting, un-mined material here in the relatively unexplored topic of sexual addiction and the stigmas attached to it, but the film really does the bare minimum in exploring the deep-seeded nature of the disease. And though its exploration of the barriers it can create between the victim and any of his or her intimate relationships is a good start – be they friendly, romantic or familial – it would have been nice if Blumberg had been interested in diving further into the murky depths the disease can take you; as it stands, the film is a lot of talking about horrible things happening, and not a lot of seeing them.

Still, for what Blumberg was trying to accomplish, you’re not likely to get much better than this. THANKS FOR SHARING is an eloquent, deftly constructed film which proves that Blumberg is a force to be reckoned with behind the pen – and now, behind the camera, as well.

8/10

d.a. garabedian