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'Don Jon': Catholics Respond to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Raunchy Redemptive Comedy (VIDEO)

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood September 24, 2013 at 3:29PM

“Don Jon,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s raunchy/redemption comedy -- and the actor’s debut as a feature director – has a lot going for it, including Gordon-Levitt’s performance, and that of Tony Danza, and the fact that the film may finally have provided Scarlett Johansson the role she was born to play. It’s intentionally vulgar. It may not have been intentionally sacrilegious.
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'Don Jon'
'Don Jon'

“Don Jon,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s raunchy/redemption comedy -- and the actor’s debut as a feature director – has a lot going for it, including Gordon-Levitt’s performance, and that of Tony Danza, and the fact that the film may finally have provided Scarlett Johansson the role she was born to play. It’s intentionally vulgar. It may not have been intentionally sacrilegious.

Nevertheless, as Katharine Hepburn once put it: The so-called “Don” -- thus titled by his friend because he never fails to go home with some random babe at the Jersey bars where they all hang out – is devoutly Catholic, at least in his own peculiar way, attending mass regularly with his parents (Danza, and a terrific Glenne Headly) and feeling some predictably Catholic guilt both for his extramarital shenanigans, and the fact that he’s a porn addict.

“There is no shortage of young men who are stuck in adolescence, unable to mature and move on,” Bill Donohue of the watchdog Catholic League told me. “This is the audience that will be drawn to Don Jon. Jon is a porn-addicted lout who has a ‘virgin-whore fixation’ …. But he is more than this—he is a practicing Catholic. This is what makes Jon tick. It also explains why young men whose lives begin and end with porn, gadgets, video games, and boom boxes will love it.”

But you don’t have to be Pope Francis to understand that the Catholic Church is also being used as comedic fodder in a way that contradicts doctrine: Jon treats the confessional as an absolution ATM, or perhaps divine shampoo: Rinse (the soul), and repeat. Until the various crises of the film arise, Jon never accepts the sacrament of Penance with any intention of mending his ways. When he does try to improve himself, he treats his penance as a scorecard (if he has less sex, he figures, he should have to say fewer Hail Marys).

“A Catholic like Don Jon would know that you need to be willing to change before you can receive absolution,” says priest and author James Martin, S.J., a regular on The Colbert Report. “Every priest knows that as well: that's Confession 101.  Unless Jon says that he will try to stop whatever brought him into the confessional, he won't receive absolution.  This is known in the trade as a 'firm purpose of amendment,' meaning: I'll try my best not to do it again.”

The implication in the film is that Jon speaks to the same priest every time he enters the confessional (this is explicitly NOT confirmed by the priest when he’s asked point blank, but we’re supposed to think he’s just maintaining his anonymity). The problem that Catholics might have, even those who’ll otherwise find “Don Jon” pretty funny, is that a sacred tenet of Church teaching is being used for convenient comedy. You don’t need to ascribe Roman dogma to find that offensive -- just a do-unto-others attitude when it applies to their religion. 

JGL has said he wanted the film to explore issues of sexual objectification and the barriers between men and women. When we approached his reps, he was not available for comment. 

The trailer is below; along with Gordon-Levitt and Tony Danza's Indiewire Sundance Video.

This article is related to: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon, Video, indieWIRE Video, Video


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.