SXSW Day 4 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt Takes Over Austin with His ‘Don Jon’*

It’s hard for me to imagine anyone more universally adored in the independent film community than Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Not only has he appeared in many popular films of budgets big and small, but he started the indie-minded filmmaking organization hitRECord. He’s active on Twitter. He’s eager to participate in various skits and shorts. He’s open about his beliefs. He even did a dance number at the Oscars this year.

So you can only imagine the fervor building in Austin on Monday before the second domestic screening of his directorial debut, Don Jon’s Addiction. After a well received premiere at Sundance, the recently abbreviated title was on everyone’s lips. Whether from people waiting in line for another film or random occupants of the press room, I couldn’t go anywhere without being reminded of JGL.

By the time the screening rolled around, I didn’t need a reminder. The screaming women surrounding the red carpet were making it pretty clear what was going on. Decked out in a blue suit — a rare and welcome bit of luxe style from a filmmaker — Gordon-Levitt brought the crowd to a fever pitch during his quick intro.

It paid off. The screening was thoroughly enhanced by the raucous crowd who showed their appreciation and support of their evening’s demi-god with two deserved ovations and lots of loud laughter.

Don Jon’s Addiction focuses on a New Jersey native with a singular mentality towards life. He has a few predetermined priorities — his “pad”, his family, his car, his church, his guys, his (many) girls, his body and, most of all, his porn. You see, Don likes porn more than actual sex. He’s surprisingly objective about it, but certainly doesn’t let anyone know, since porn is “for losers”.

Rather than making another film simply about sex addiction, Gordon-Levitt the actor, writer, and director focuses on how his relationship with porn defines his relationships with others. It’s not about conquering a demon, but learning how to live.

Don Jon

That being said, Don Jon’s Addiction is definitely a comedy above all else. There’s certainly more to ponder than many sex-driven movies, but Gordon-Levitt’s focus in all three of his roles is definitely to earn some laughs. Why else would the hipster icon write a part and cast himself as a muscle-head Jersey greaser? I doubt it’s so he can henceforth be known as Broseph Gordon-Levitt. During the post-screening Q&A, Gordon-Levitt said he enjoyed taking on roles very different from himself. It’s clearly the case here.

Gordon-Levitt the actor infuses an incredible amount of fun into a character he described as a “douchebag”. It would’ve been easy just to mock the simple-minded lothario. He’s not the brightest bulb in the box, after all. Yet the actor understands and objectively depicts his mentality. “I want this. I care about this. Screw the rest,” seems to be Don’s mantra and he lives his life by it all the time.

This leads to many moments of blunt narration when he breaks down why he’s got it right and everyone else has it wrong. It also brings brief but focused moments of hilarity. I won’t spoil any of the major ones, but don’t get up to go to the bathroom when Don’s driving or going to the movies.

There are so many moments like these it’s amazing they don’t add up to more than a B+ movie. Despite only running 89 minutes, Don Jon is slightly bloated in the middle (something Don would never allow to happen to his precious “bod”). It’s not that it lacks laughs along the way, but it takes a bit longer than it should for Don to run into a meaningful problem.

I find it hard to count that against Gordon-Levitt, though. JGL the writer has crafted a story with well-defined themes, compelling characters, and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. JGL the director has crafted a film with undeniable style and visually-motivated momentum. The actor knocks the role out of the park. So what if it doesn’t have the political heft of Clooney’s pictures or moral judgments of Affleck’s, two actors/writers/directors I admire?

Don Jon’s Addiction is great at what it wants to be, just like its central character and, apparently, just like the man who made it.

* * *

Bates Motel

Earlier Monday morning, I attended the premiere of the upcoming A&E series Bates Motel at a less than packed 10 AM screening. Be it too early for people out late partying during a Franco-esque “spriiiiing breeeeak” or lack of interest in the Psycho pseudo-prequel, I can safely say buzz levels shouldn’t expect a boost after the lackluster pilot episode.

We begin with the death of Norman’s father, who may or may not have been killed by Norman’s mother. Though there’s only a moment of implied menace, later events tend to skew heavily towards her guilt. After the incident, the mother and son move to a new town (something that happens often for the family, again implying menace in the mother) and purchase a motel. Norman goes to school. Norma, his mother, tries to get it up and running.

Norma, played by the always-appealing Vera Farmiga, is the show’s one hook. She seems to have plenty of secrets waiting to be revealed, yet she’s not as batshit crazy as they could have made her. She is controlling of Norman, namely when his efforts to go out for the track team are met with a deep, selfish sadness from his mother. She doesn’t flip out. She doesn’t yell or cry or lock him in the house. She just guilts him into not doing it.

It’s not as subtle as it could be, but television drama rarely is, especially at this level. Sadly, I’m not sure what Bates Motel wants to be. I’m sure it was greenlit readily after the success of American Horror Story, but it’s not terribly frightening. It feels more like Dexter, especially when a body needs to be disposed of out on the ocean.

It doesn’t have the visceral drive or intriguing premise of Showime’s ratings grabber. It has pacing issues, focus issues, and character issues. But that’s in 40 minutes. TV needs time to iron out the bugs and find its feet. All of the above could be fixed by midsession. They’re just not there yet.

With a Friday Night Lights scribe helping out, I don’t want to write off Bates Motel already. I don’t really like judging TV shows after only one episode. Television programs need time to grow by deciding which characters draw an audience and which themes become relevant. Pilots are just supposed to give an idea of the potential to come. Bates Motel has some potential, but it hasn’t honed it nearly well enough to warrant its SXSW venue.

* * *

The cast of Don Jon on the red carpet

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Tony Danza

Brie Larson