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Man Up

Don Jon tells the truth about sex




DON JON. My affinity for Joseph Gordon-Levitt predisposed me to enjoy this, his debut as writer-director. Add in the ubiquitous trailer with its hypnotic repetition and slick pacing, and I had set up some mighty high expectations. The actual movie is entertaining and enjoyable, and I liked it very much, but in a different way than I thought I would.

Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a late- twenty-something New Jersey bartender, divides his daylight hours between working out, attending Mass and cleaning his apartment. By night, he hits the clubs with his boys, never failing to take home an attractive young lady. But in spite of his sexual conquests and impressively disciplined lifestyle, Jon still struggles to fill an internal void. His efforts at personal work involve nearly immeasurable amounts of Internet porn and

masturbation. Then a knockout named Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) in a slinky red dress plays hard to get and gets her hooks in him. Convinced he's found The One, Jon starts playing by her rules, adjusting how he navigates the world. When he can't kick his porn habit, the couple find themselves at an impasse. This upheaval and a tentative friendship with an older woman (Julianne Moore) send Jon down the uncomfortable, unfamiliar road of self-reflection and bring about seismic changes in his life.

I figured Don Jon would be funny and bright and lively, which it is. But as a writer and director, Gordon-Levitt exercises impressive restraint to make this a much more mature, nuanced meditation on adulthood and contemporary culture than I'd anticipated. The script is more sweetly sad than outright funny, and it speaks volumes about modern sexual mores, especially with our easy access to information and to each other. It uses porn as an indicator of the false intimacy of modern media and explores the way it shapes our desires. Jon is unsatisfied by the vast amount of sex he has, mostly because Internet porn enables him to manufacture an ideal, unlikely sexual interaction. Only able to lose himself in solo trysts, his real-life liaisons feel less genuine, less intense than what he can watch on his laptop.

Without pandering, Gordon-Levitt creates authentic characters in an all-too- believable scenario. We all know a guy like Jon, and most of us love him and hate him at the same time. Ditto the real girls who inform Johansson's character, a maddening combination of allure and selfishness. It's this authenticity in the writing, and the relatively tame visual style of the direction, that took me by surprise. I figured Don Jon would exist as an exercise in style, a manufactured backdrop for editing tricks and over-sized characterizations. While the New Jersey setting and accents do add an element of otherworldliness, the performances are subtle and naturalistic. The visual style is clean, decidedly old-fashioned and artful without trying too hard. To me, the real strength of this movie lies in the writing. Gordon-Levitt is able to say more about romance and masculinity in the modern age with this little comedy than most writers would even attempt. Even if his debut doesn't go down as a breakthrough, he has written one of the most concise, self-aware screenplays of the year. R. 90m.

RUSH. The shrieking exhaust of a race car at redline sounds to me like sweet, heavenly music. So no surprise, I liked this movie a lot. But something in the execution let me down.

The 1976 Formula One racing season was defined by the rivalry between two opposites: hard-charging, life-of-the-party Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and prickly, surgically precise Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Both bought their way into the big leagues as privateers and then distinguished themselves with talent and tenacity. They quickly became the guys to beat on race day and played a riveting game of cat and mouse on the way to the championship. In an era when death was more the rule than the exception in top-tier motorsport, their vastly different approaches heightened the drama.

Director Ron Howard (and producing partner Brian Grazer) imbue Rush with all their signature bravado and gorgeous detail. Hemsworth, Bruhl and an excellent ensemble cast do impressive work bringing their characters to life. The quiet dialogue scenes are just as compellingly watchable as the white-knuckle racing sequences. But I found myself wishing for a smaller, more 1970s style approach to the filmmaking. Granted, the look of the production, the feel of 1976, comes through in every frame. But the quick-cutting and big-guitar soundtrack play against it distractingly.

Ultimately this is a popcorn movie in the 1990s sports-action mold, where I wished for a more contemplative, smaller experience. Being almost great makes it all the more disappointing, though still exceedingly entertaining, even if you don't give a damn about racing. (Movie/gearhead spoiler: look for the missing spark plug in the combustion chamber shots.) R. 123m.


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