Dan Leal was a top salesperson at a Fortune 500 company, but quit to become an adult video producer and performer. “I made a lot of money, but the attention I got from that wasn’t as fulfilling to me as the attention I get from being on stage in front of a camera.” He doesn’t look like a leading man in the Hollywood sense—he’s a sweet, teddy bear type with a hint of a double-chin and a soft-pack; his charm is more boyish than manly. He smiles a lot, his brown eyes twinkle—he likes you. With a sharp eye for the ironies and bizarre juxtapositions of porn professionals dealing with mundane tasks of everyday life, director Alexandra Berger chronicles three and a half years in the life of “Porno Dan.”
We see him lend his talents to a multitude of on-screen leading ladies, and here Berger nicely straddles (haha) the line between showing too much and too little, staying true to the subculture’s easy attitude toward hardcore sex, while keeping the focus on the characters. Dan’s style as a lover is surprisingly affectionate and cuddly, and it turns out he has a powerful need for the intimacy of real relationships (the camera spots a copy of Romance for Dummies in his apartment).
Berger approaches her subject with impressive perspective and sensitivity, digging for the humanity beneath the glossy, constructed characters. There’s a warmth and camaraderie among the performers. Kayce Monroe emerges as a fascinating supporting character: she judges her sexuality as “disgusting” because she’s into the extreme stuff. Later, right after theatrically eating cum from a condom, she talks about her kids: “I’m a mom; they’re my angels…” and breaks into tears.
Dan burns through a girlfriend in the first reel; then his ex Emily starts drifting back into the picture. She’s the love of his life—a college student whose parents don’t approve of Dan’s career choice. Meanwhile, he starts dating Vanessa, a pretty, helpless colleague swimming in a tsunami of drama.
The next time we see him, we’re in the heart of the story: he’s moved to Baltimore and set up house with Emily. A brash and bossy law student, she’s giddy with excitement after convincing Dan to give up having sex on camera to be with her. The stakes are huge—it’s possibly the defining moment of Dan’s romantic history, but they’re both emotionally fragile and battling addictions, and Dan’s identity and ability to make a living are wrapped up being Porno Dan.
At one point, Berger sits him down for an in-depth interview. For someone so warm and engaging, he’s quite guarded: he swats questions back at her, squirming and grinning, curtly owning up to being codependent and a sex addict; he shows her a room full of porn and self-help books. When Berger tries to get him to talk about his mom we see a rare flash of temper, masked by a smile, of course.
In the final reel, the film goes skidding on an icy road toward a sudden, tragicomically thin Vegas wedding. Mama Leal shows up and the resemblance to Dan is remarkable: friendly and articulate, she ties her answers to questions about her relationship with him in tidy little bows. Her shortcomings as a mother, which she airily acknowledges, open a window on what’s made Dan what he is.
He’s trapped in Danland, the strange and surreal world of his own making, in a cocoon persona that keeps him a hungry ghost starved for genuine love.
— Paul Sbrizzi