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Sundance Film Festival 2013: Don Jon’s Addiction and Touchy Feely

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Sundance Film Festival 2013: <em>Don Jon’s Addiction</em> and <em>Touchy Feely</em>

As directorial debuts go, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon’s Addiction is a surprisingly well-crafted first effort, a raunchy comedy with substance. Gordon-Levitt stars as Don Jon, a Jersey Shore type obsessed with hardcore porn, more interested in the thousands of kinky clips he’s amassed on his hard drive than he is with the actual sex he has with the countless beautiful women he picks up at night clubs. For him, nothing quite lives up to the fantasy women in his videos, until he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a beauty in a red dress who rejects his usually successful pick-up lines and inadvertently forces him to face his porn addiction head-on.

Edited with a frantic energy, the film cuts back and forth with almost cartoonish verve from Don’s real-life experiences to explicit scenes of pornography that are humorous in their gratuity, but also serve to highlight the character’s obsession, revealing the constant feed of sex playing inside his mind. Gordon-Levitt manages to keep his guido stereotype endearing and sympathetic despite the at times disturbing, even predatory way in which he regards women. Moments of laugh-out-loud humor are broken up with truly dramatic, affecting moments that make the character ultimately more complex than he initially seems.

Though it never lays its message on too thick, Don Jon’s Addiction is a film whose underlying themes are reminiscent of the more dramatic Shame. While Don’s addiction is played for laughs, it’s also taken seriously, with pressure gradually and more forcefully applied to his blatant objectification of women. In a digital age where porn has hugely influenced the way we relate to sex in real life, it stands as a poignant and fearless exploration of what that relationship means.

After their lukewarm collaboration Your Sister’s Sister, director Lynn Shelton and actress Rosemarie DeWitt reunite again for the equally unsatisfying dramedy Touchy Feely, a film that squanders the potential of an intriguing premise. It follows massage therapist Abby, a woman who finds herself unable to work when she develops a sudden and paralyzing fear of bodily contact. Her terror affects not only her professional, but personal life, putting her relationship with boyfriend Jesse (Scott McNairy) in danger. Meanwhile, her precocious young niece, Jenny (Ellen Page), and socially awkward brother, Paul (Josh Pais), also go through their own existential crises stemming from an inability to connect with other people, both physically and emotionally.

Human connection is the film’s obvious but woefully unelaborated theme. Shelton’s camera jumps sporadically from character to character, never spending enough time with any of them for us to get a rich sense of who they are. As Abby loses her gift of touch, her socially awkward dentist brother inadvertently heals a patient suffering from a jaw disorder, and though he claims that it was just a fluke, he continues to cure hundreds of other patients who reverently seek him out to take away their own afflictions. While there’s a sense that Abby’s gift has somehow miraculously transferred to her brother, Shelton doesn’t attempt to rationalize this bizarre plot shift.

While it possesses all the hallmarks that made Shelton’s debut film, Humpday, so entertaining (an interesting, imaginative plot, a stellar cast, hints of poignant drama), Touchy Feely never quite makes the plight of its characters truly engaging. The lack of connection to the protagonists or insight into what they’re going through leaves the movie feeling unfinished.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 17—27.