It’s a “Big Porn Year” at Sundance

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 22 2013 9:01 AM

A “Big Porn Year” at Sundance

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Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Don Jon's Addiction

You could feel the audience swoon when Joseph Gordon-Levitt arrived for the premiere of Don Jon’s Addiction here at Sundance. (The woman next to me sighed, “I just want to date him.”) He wrote, directed, and stars in the film, probably the best feature to come out of the festival’s first weekend. You could call it a romantic comedy, but it’s a hybrid, really, of Annie Hall, Harold and Maude, and Jersey Shore. Like many Sundance “star” indies, the cast is famous to a fault: Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore are the female leads, while Anne Hathaway appears in a random clip.

And while it’s not easy to make a thoughtful movie about sex, Gordon-Levitt pulls it off. His character, Jon Martello, is a more likable version of Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino: the same gelly hair, hard body, and proclivity for close dancing. Jon sleeps with a new woman every week, but prefers porn to sex: It is only in front of his computer, stroking his penis, that he can truly relax. “That’s where I lose myself,” he says. But the women Jon meets get him to rethink his approach to sex and to human connection. Moore’s character, in particular, makes the film something more than a romantic comedy with extra booty. The film was just bought by Relativity Media and will reportedly get a wide release this summer (despite rumblings that, in its current form, the movie could get an NC-17 rating).

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There’s even more flesh in Look of Love, Michael Winterbottom’s film about British sex magnate Paul Raymond, roughly the English equivalent of Hugh Hefner. The film is a spiritual sequel of sorts to Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, which profiled Tony Wilson and the Manchester music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Both feature Steve Coogan in the lead, and a plot that begins at a moment of exciting liberation, followed by a slow collapse into utter decadence and wastage. There is so much cocaine snorted in this film that my throat began to hurt; in one memorable scene, Raymond’s daughter, in the pangs of labor, distracts the nurse and begs her father to cut her a line. He obliges.

There’s a lot to look at in the movie, including an achingly sexy turn by Tamsin Egerton as stripper/writer/paramour Fiona Richmond. But something is missing. In 24 Hour Party People, all the excess seems almost justified by the great music of bands like Joy Division and New Order. But in The Look of Love, the extravagance isn’t actually in pursuit of anything—other than increasingly close money shots. Unlike Tony Wilson, Paul Raymond is simply exploitative, and ultimately very hard to care for.

“This is a big porn year,” someone remarked in a screening. It’s true. In addition to these two films, there’s Lovelace, which will premiere latter this week and which profiles the star of Deep Throat. A BDSM documentary called Kink is here along with one of its producers, James Franco. Call it a reflection of contemporary viewing habits. Sundance doesn’t actually have a porn category, but if there are enough indie films about porn, what’s the difference?