Film reviews: Don Jon | The Butler

Joseph Gordon-Levitt directs and stars in Don Jon. Picture: Complimentary
Joseph Gordon-Levitt directs and stars in Don Jon. Picture: Complimentary
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DON Juans everywhere beware: Joseph Gordon-Levitt has just made a movie that could demolish your chances on a first date.

Once the sweet-faced kid from 3rd Rock From The Sun, then a star of edgy indie pictures and big studio blockbusters, he now makes his writing-directing debut with some rather good jokes about the triangle of a man, a woman and his porn habit.

Gordon-Levitt also takes the title role, playing a self-satisfied lothario nicknamed the Don by his admiring male posse because he makes offers that pneumatic women in his orbit cannot refuse. Early on, the image-conscious barman ticks off the things that matter to him; his family, his stuff, his looks, women’s looks and looking at porn.

Don Jon is all about appearance, marking his women out of ten, and never taking anything under an eight back to his sterile, spick-and-span flat. When confronted by a one-night stand, he is confidently dismissive: “You’re a big girl – you really thought I was going to call you?” In any case, no real woman can compete with the unreality of the porn Don Jon surfs.

Gordon-Levitt compresses the Don’s routine of friends, family, femmes and frottage into a cleverly cut call-back montage, which increases in speed each time; a neat nod to another, bleaker 
film about addiction, Requiem For A Dream. Meanwhile the Don has his head turned after talent-spotting Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a bootylicious but high maintenance vamp with control issues, insists on meeting his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly), and dry humps him into signing up for night classes to better himself.

Barbara is hooked on a different kind of movie – Hollywood romances where men would do anything to win the right woman – and allows Gordon-Levitt to have some fun confecting snippets of one called Someone Special, where Anne Hathaway meets Channing Tatum. Somewhere in Hollywood, a studio executive is filing that thought away.

Unlike many movies, as last week’s Bechdel discussion underlined, Don Jon makes an effort to give complexity to its female characters. Johansson is gamely complicit in spoofing her va-va-voom image, and even Don’s perma-texting sister (Brie Larson) gets a payoff.

I’m not so convinced by Don’s rapport with Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman he meets at evening classes, who is funny, smart, knowledgeable about 1970s porn and something of a dream cougar in that she has a private sorrow that she doesn’t overshare, and apparently access to a really good diet and exercise plan.

The film is on firmer ground exploring the tension between sex and love, and the way media images distort expectations. The point that porn can undermine real intimacy isn’t new, but it rarely gets such an unpatronising treatment, and as Don Jon assures you, it’s what’s inside that counts. At 32, Gordon-Levitt has made a lively, savvy film with some great performances from some surprising quarters. It’s also noticeably surefooted when it comes to dodging potential bear-traps; after all, an R-rated comedy about porn addiction could have been a pretty smutty event itself. In every sense, this is a satisfying ride.

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

The Butler (12A)

Rating: * *

A GOOD butler is efficient, unobtrusive and dignified. Quite the opposite of Lee Daniels’ film, a lurid melodrama in which Forest Whitaker’s Job-like manservant serves canapés and coffee to a series of US presidents before, during and after the Civil Rights movement.

Reminiscent of Forrest Gump, Cecil is a blunt way of depicting the politics and practice of race relations in America, with the butler popping up whenever there’s a pivotal event that requires witnessing, while his family struggle with his absences and his passivity.

Over the years, presidents pass in front of Cecil like a US election special of the Rory Bremner show, with a shorn Robin Williams essaying a tetchy Eisenhower, Alan Rickman apparently suffering a horrific accident in a waxworks factory before playing Ronald Reagan, and, weirdest of all, John Cusack as Nixon. despite his lack of resemblance in look, manner or nuance to Tricky Dicky. Meanwhile, Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) takes to the bottle and their neighbour (Terrence Howard).

Lee Daniels previously steered Precious and The Paperboy, and it’s a relief that his touch is more restrained here – but only just. The history is hokum, from the moment Alex Pettyfer’s bigoted plantation owner limps into the cotton to rape Cecil’s mother then slaughter his father. Apparently the film is based on real White House butler Eugene Allen: you can’t help feeling he should have been served better.

On general release from Friday

Other releases

French Film Festival

Celebrating its coming of age, the 21st festival offers a month of Gallic gems, including a restored print of Jacques Demy’s neglected New Wave romance Lola, tributes to Maurice Pialat, and premieres including the stirring horse-racing biopic Jappeloup and Guillaume Gallienne’s award-winning comedy Me, Myself And Mum.

Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bo’ness, Inverness, Dundee, Kirkcaldy, Aberdeen

Dom Hemingway (15)

Rating: * * *

Jude Law bulks up and adopts Wolverine’s mutton chops to play a safecracker trying to get payback and his life back after 12 years in jail. Writer/director Richard Shepard strains too hard for amped-up pulp grandeur, but Law is fantastic as the ex-con.

On general release from Friday

The Counselor (18)

Rating: * * *

Michael Fassbender’s corrupt lawyer gets entangled with a drug cartel in Ridley Scott’s star-studded noir. Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay is as bleakly existential as you might expect, but also portentous, posturing, misogynistic and dramatically crackers. Brad Pitt and Penélope Cruz wrangle with overstylised dialogue, Javier Bardem nobly submits to some sort of bet with the wardrobe department, and an uninhibited Cameron Diaz deserves a round of applause next time she shows up on Top Gear.

On general release from Friday

A Magnificent Haunting (15)

Rating: * * *

Slight comedy about a wannabe actor who discovers his huge new apartment is already occupied by a theatrical troupe of ghosts.

Glasgow Film Theatre, today only

In Fear (15)

Rating: * * *

A young couple (rising stars Alice Englert and Iain De Caestecker) get lost in rural Ireland as darkness falls in this atmospheric backwoods horror. There are a few decent jolts en route before it runs out of gas and ideas.

On general release from Friday

Battle Of The Year (12A)

Rating: * *

Another breakdancing movie in need of new moves in the plot department.

Selected release from Friday