‘Don Jon’ surprisingly misanthropic commentary on modern romance and gender roles

don jon posterDon Jon

Written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

USA, 2013

It is hard not to wonder, while watching Don Jon, exactly how much Joseph Gordon-Levitt can’t stand the culture of which he is a part. His directorial debut (which he also wrote) is a deeply cynical portrait of what he must consider the shallowest elements of pop culture. Here is a film that means to argue that porn isn’t that far off from the fluffy romantic comedies littered about modern cinema, that X-rated sex scenes and 27 Dresses are joined closer at the hip than most people would care to admit. Perhaps there’s a germ of an argument there, something that could be explored and examined in a Master’s thesis; Don Jon, unfortunately, feels about as surface-level as its leads, despite wanting to probe intently.

Gordon-Levitt is Jon Martello, Jr., a studly bartender in New Jersey whose life consists of the following: masturbating to Internet porn, working out, going to the club with his friends (who long ago crowned him the “Don”), finding a “dime” of a woman, bringing her to his bachelor pad, then sleeping with her. Oh, and he always goes to confession every Sunday. Lather, rinse, repeat. One night, though, Jon spies with his wandering eye the most beautiful woman he’s seen: Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson). They quickly fall for each other, though Jon’s obvious addiction to porn and Barbara’s unfailing belief that Hollywood’s depiction of romance (shown with the use of a few mildly funny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos) can be replicated in the real world wind up being serious obstacles.

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It’s not so much that Gordon-Levitt or Johansson aren’t fine in Don Jon: they look the part, to be sure, he suitably buff and she as gorgeous as ever. The notion that a modern romance can be destroyed because both participants have wildly divergent views of what a modern romance should be is worth exploring, too. When Jon and Barbara verbally tussle over whether he should clean his apartment or if a cleaning lady should handle it, it’s nasty but it’s also skimming the surface. Gordon-Levitt clearly believes that movies, TV shows, magazines, commercials, and more have helped shape the way many American men and women perceive each other, and it’s to everyone’s detriment. Throwing out a barrage of fashion magazine covers, or quick shots of pornography, or snippets of fake romantic comedies, though, are just repetitive ways of saying the same thing with different examples. Gordon-Levitt beats the same drum for 90 minutes; it is sad how some people allow themselves to believe that unreal expectations of how men and women should look and act are accurate. It’s been sad for a while, though, and Don Jon doesn’t have much more to say.

Something else that’s vastly strange, specifically because of the subject matter, is how Don Jon is more verbally explicit than physically. Jon is addicted to porn, although he’s not willing to even allow the possibility until an older woman (Julianne Moore) in one of his night classes says it to him matter-of-factly. What we do see of both his porn and his physical conquests, though, is deliberately sped up. As little skin as possible is shown. There’s profanity aplenty here, but for a movie whose characters are obsessed with sex in varying forms, Don Jon feels frankly timid when it comes to nudity. Jon has sex numerous times in the story, and yet, we rarely see him or the various ladies (including Johansson) who make time in his bed naked. Because of how immature and tittering our culture is, that request can sound more prurient than is intended, but if your movie is about how everyone can’t stop thinking about sex, you might as well show a little.

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Though Gordon-Levitt’s script is mostly one-dimensional, his eye behind the camera is confident and solid. Like George Clooney with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, it seems obvious that Gordon-Levitt took inspiration from the filmmakers he’s collaborated with in the past, specifically Looper director Rian Johnson. A lot of the flair and style—as well as the pacing—is, if not cribbed, acutely similar to the feel of Johnson’s filmography. And even if their characters are underwritten, Gordon-Levitt and Johansson are decent as the leads. The real standout is Moore (who thankfully avoids doing a Jersey accent) as Esther, one of only two characters in Don Jon with a brain in their head. (The other is Jon’s younger sister, played by Brie Larson. She’s got almost no dialogue, but it’s surprisingly OK for her to be silent, as her eyes do all the talking.) Esther is also criminally barely sketched in, but Moore elevates the material far more than it deserves in her handful of scenes. And then there’s Tony Danza, as Jon’s father, a case of the apple falling so closely to the tree that it’s still stuck to the branches. If anything, there’s a bit of fun to be had in watching Danza curse up a storm, something he’d never have done in network sitcoms. But even with the two Jons, who dress exactly alike even if they do so unintentionally, there’s not much going on below the surface.

Don Jon is a film that, fearfully, believes it has Something Important to say about modern culture. It is a surprisingly misanthropic piece of work, one that just barely has a more negative view of women than it does of men. Sex does sell, and many Americans are willing to be convinced that all they need is the right clothes, the right deodorant, the right food, or the right car to get the girl or the boy. Somehow, critiquing the people who fall under corporate America’s sway seems a bit crueler and more pointless than attacking the society that has decided to treat them all like rubes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is clearly a smart guy, and so is the rest of the cast of his movie. But Don Jon feels like it’s talking down to the crowd, a feeling that’s never welcome.

— Josh Spiegel

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