So, I don’t really generally subscribe to romantic comedies. There are exceptions to every rule, of course and some manage to charm their way into my cold cold heart, but generally, they don’t do it for me. It’s a genre that I have always found to be rather lazy, giving you broad, unrealistic characters who can only described as douchebags, but because they are played by Julia Roberts and, more frequently, Katherine Heigl, audiences respond and side with them anyway, even though they are often total assholes. These flicks can be fun and occasionally light entertainment, but in general, they really don’t appeal to me.
Don Jon is one of the exceptions to the rule, and a big chunk of that is what writer/director/star Joseph Gordon-Levitt does in the story to subvert the genre.
Don Jon is the story of Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a typical Jersey boy straight out of a reality show who clubs every weekend, rates the women he sees, and continues his fuck streak by taking home the most attractive specimen he can find. He also attends weekly Mass with his family, where he confesses all of his misdeeds to the patient priest and dutifully prays his rosaries as penance. Rinse, repeat. Also, there is his MASSIVE porn hobby. You might even call it an addiction. Through voice-overs (which could have come across as irritating, but, thanks to Gordon-Levitt’s delivery, were always sort of charming) he explains the allure. Sex is just never as good in real life as it is in porn. Even with the profane number of women he has taken to bed, nothing can measure up to the way he loses himself in a porn video, and no women physically compare to the idea set up in that world.
Until he meets HER. While out at a club one evening, he spies the lovely Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) – a 10, on the bro scale. The two start dating, and while the sex predictably isn’t living up to his expectations, he still finds himself falling head over heels for this girl. They find themselves trying to navigate the early stages of their relationship while both bringing their respective baggage to the table – Jon with his porn and his inability to derive pleasure and a personal connection from a real sexual relationship, and Barbara, with her penchant for love stories and her Princess complex – the belief that true love means that you are more than willing (and happy) to change yourself for your partner (specifically, the man doing the changing for his beautiful Lady).
The thing that Gordon-Levitt tried to do here (and mostly succeeded) was to examine just how ill-equipped we are to deal with real, actual relationships. Whatever the medium (for Jon, porn; for Barbara, Hollywood romances), our expectations for love and relationships have been influenced from an early age to be something nigh-on impossible. Heights that we cannot possibly (and probably should not) expect a partner to live up to, and yet, The Jenna Jamesons and the Richard Geres are the templates for our romantic partners.
After being caught porning one night, Jon realizes the negative impact that his hobby can have on a relationship, and takes pains to hide it. It is only after a conversation with a classmate (Julianne Moore), that Jon really begins to look at where the obsession comes from and how it impacts him, both personally and as a partner.
Don Jon is at once an indictment of traditional rom-coms, and a subversion of them at the same time. I can see this same story told more traditionally. Girl Meets Boy. Girl and Boy fall in Love. Girl discovers boy has a big thing for porno. Hilarity ensues as this fixation finds new and scrappy ways of presenting itself in their relationship. One day, it finally hits the breaking point, and girl says that boy must stop. Boy agrees, but totally lies. Girl says she just can’t be with him anymore, because he lied to her. Girl leaves. Boy shows up a few months later, newly out of porn rehab, saying she is the most important thing in his life and he wanted to prove that he could really go the distance for her. Girl and boy make up and live happily ever after. The end. (that’s not how it ends, by the way. Gordon-Levitt wrote us and ending that is actually worth watching). Here, we get to see how both individuals are caught up in their own bullshit and how that bullshit colors their outlook on their relationships.
The cast is great though, and they are clearly all enjoying these roles. Gordon-Levitt and Johansson have a great chemistry together. Tony Danza and Glenne Headly as Jon’s parents are a great match, with Danza in particular scoring some great moments. Brie Larson, as Jon’s sister, though she has precious few lines, is a great presence in the story, serving a something of an audience surrogate as she constantly notices the same issues that the viewer is picking up on, yet which the other characters seem oblivious to.
For a freshman effort, Don Jon is a solid film. There were a couple of times the plot events and pacing sort of collided, but it recovered. If anything, I think I would have liked to have seen the story told with a little more of Barbara’s perspective thrown into the mix. I think it could have been beneficial to get a closer view of where she was coming from and to have seen her a bit more well-rounded. It’s tempting to see her as just a poorly-written female character, but I think it’s important to note that neither of our leads was particularly likable, for the majority of the film. Sure, Jon is charming, in his own way, but he’s also kind of a tool for the majority of the story. You’re siding with him because he’s clearly our protagonist, and you like him well-enough but he doesn’t really become our hero until act 3 hits and he begins to gain some perspective on his life and relationships.
Don Jon is an entertaining film that examines a lot of different issues (some more than others), including intimacy, trust, relationships, our society’s constant and ongoing objectification of women, expectations and connections. Gordon-Levitt brought a lot of ideas to this film, and while the 90 minute runtime didn’t give him ample opportunity to completely explore them all, there is a lot of room for contemplation and discussion upon leaving the theater (which is more than I can say for most rom-coms).