Joseph Gordon-Levitt's writing and directing debut is an extremely promising first film, which handles a touchy social issue with aplomb and clarity. The film itself is good, involving and funny, but most impressive is his assured use of music and editing, his ability to pack resonance to numerous social issues into the background of his scenes, and write characters who seem to have lives outside the film.
So here we have the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote the screenplay and stars. And while it is quite good, not quite great, it contains so many promising elements that with one film, he has made himself a real director to watch.
We open with a montage that shows the sexualization of women in popular culture, and demonstrates how everyday television, magazines and advertising is rife with hyper-sexualized, unrealistic images of women. We then meet Gordon-Levitt as Jon, New Jersey Italian-American who describes his priorities in life; his body, apartment, friends, family, church, women, and porn. He says that porn allows him to "lose himself," and that while sex with real women is nice, it doesn't give him the satisfaction that porn does. We see him leave the bed containing one of his sleeping hookups, and go to the other room to masturbate, then slip back into bed.
He has two friends that he hangs out with, going to the clubs and rating women on a scale of 1 to 10, where he sees Scarlett Johannson as Barbara. He deems her a 10, and talks to her, but she won't kiss or even tell him her name. After finding her online, he asks her to lunch, and they start dating. She loves romantic comedies, and they go to the movies to see one. Many reviews have cited the parody romance film here, starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway, as one of the highlights of the film, and it is funny, but for me, it was way too short. I was hoping for a lot more of that, although it accomplishes its purpose in the film, which is to show that Barbara is equally caught up in her own unrealistic fantasies of how relationships should be, only hers are widely accepted.
By the way, Jon seems to have a Windows laptop that runs Apple software, a constant source of distraction for me.
They continue seeing each other, and she continues withholding sex while acting extremely seductive to him, extracting promises to meet his family and for him to start taking night classes before she will sleep with him. On his first night of class, boom, he gets sex as a reward. That night he slips out of bed and goes to the other room to watch porn, during which he is caught. He is able to lie his way out of it, saying that porn is for losers who cannot have sex with real women, explicitly casting criticism on himself. Still, as he has elaborated, porn remains much preferred to actual sex, as there are no performance or self-consciousness issues, porn women are willing, and give blow jobs that last more than two minutes. He also says that in order to get a blow job in reality, a man has to perform cunnilingus, which he finds disgusting. Barbara, by the way, has proven to be no different.
Still, he takes her to meet his family, where his mother is delighted that she might be on the path to gaining grandchildren, and his father is blown away by Barbara's sexy looks. His sister is present, but now and through the majority of the film, says nothing but is absorbed in her smartphone. Soon Jon is taken to meet Barbara's family, where a baby is put into his hands, with Barbara telling him how cute he looks holding the baby. Meanwhile, he is barely seeing his friends, and has no more appetite for the hookup game. He has also met Julianne Moore as Esther, first seen weeping outside of class, and who later sees him watching porn in class on his phone.
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First Barbara gets deeply upset that Jon does his own housework, which is "not sexy." I would have thought most women would be thrilled to have a boyfriend invested in keeping his own home clean and willing to work to do it, but she thinks that should be left to servants. Then one night Barbara finds porn in Jon's browser history (Jon didn't even know he had a browser history, and her snooping in it is perceived as a given), and breaks up with him. The idea that she has her own unrealistic expectations for relationships is one she refuses to engage with. She's gone.
Now things go in an unexpected direction. Jon and Esther, who is at least 25 years older, have sex in her SUV. They talk, and she tells him that his sex is extremely one-sided, and that for him to truly lose himself he needs to do it in another person. I knew this was coming, but I thought it might be in the context of a warm chat in a coffeehouse. Then Jon finally breaks the news of his breakup to his friends and family, and suddenly (we could see this coming, but one doesn't resent it) his sister speaks. She says that he's better off without Barbara, because she just wants someone she can control. He arranges a lunch date with Barbara, and apologizes for lying, whereupon she tells him that he is incapable of having a relationship, and a bunch of other nastiness. She refuses to accept that anything in her manner of relationships is one-sided, which only serves to reinforce Jon's new understanding. We end with a coda (expected) that Jon is now able to lose himself with a woman, and that although they won't get married, he is going to continue his relationship with Esther (unexpected). The end.
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It was very good. The writing is quite good and insightful for the most part, although there are a few dialogue non-sequiturs (perhaps the result of editing issues), and the character of Esther barely becomes more than a screenwriting contrivance, despite Moore's considerable abilities. But the writing is careful, and just a moment after you're wondering how Esther can afford such a grand house, you find out. A great many real-life issues are thrown out there and handled with aplomb, and Gordon-Levitt sees and displays insightful connections. And it uses music cues and editing together in a very assured way, to keep the film energetic and moving forward.
Often when I'm writing I talk about a film having (or more often, NOT having) "resonance," and here is a great example of what I mean. So many things in this movie allude to issues outside the film, or further illuminate relationships, in a way that makes statements and gains meanings beyond the actual scenes of the film. Several times throughout the film, Gordon-Levitt shows images from popular culture that are just this side of being porn, which illuminates the social issue of the ubiquitous use of sex to sell and permissiveness in media, concurrent with a moralism and shaming of any man who responds too much to such images. Small interactions between his mother and father speak volumes about how they came to be who they are, and how Jon came to be as he is. Barbara having Jon hold a baby for a moment shows us where she's going with this, without having to go into it. The comparison of porn to romantic comedies is rich with issues, only some of which are directly discussed. There are many more, and they succeed in making the characters feel like real, living people, and provide a lot of comment on matters not strictly within the purview of the film.
Finally, I really appreciated that Gordon-Levitt doesn't back away from some of the more raw aspects of his argument, and doesn't apologize for the fact that men like sex. He expresses, repeatedly, why a man might like porn more than real sex, and he makes a lot of good points. The situation with Barbara, hot as she is, good as sex with her might be, is no different, which was also refreshing: so it's not just a matter of finding the right person, and problem solved. And even as the story is resolving, it does so without men having to apologize or be shamed. In most films and certainly on television, men usually have to face that liking sex is dirty and immature if not outright morally wrong, and the "resolution" is for them to give up sex as they knew it, or want it. It is more than okay for a woman not to want sex, but very wrong for a man to step outside of a relationship to get it. This movie casts Jon as having to mature and be more realistic, but doesn't ever shame him, or men at large, for liking sex.
And good performances, too, especially by Johannson, who doesn't betray a bit of condescension to Barbara. As a whole movie, ultimately there's a tiny smidge to be desired, but the things that are good about it--excellent use of music and editing, insightful writing, creation of a great deal of resonance, characters that seem real and living--are things that point to a very promising future for a writer-director. It may not be the world's best film, it may not win awards this year, but for a debut, Joseph Gordon-Levitt should be very, very proud.
If you like good, funny dramas.