Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: Don Jon

by Patrick Bromley
Don Jon, the new romantic comedy that marks the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a mess. But it's the kind of well-intentioned mess that only a first time writer-director makes.

Here is a movie bursting with energy and confidence. It's a movie with lots of things that it wants to say, even though it's never quite sure how to say them. It's a movie with likable performances and charm to spare. But in trying to tackle ideas like contemporary gender roles, self-absorption, misogyny and American sexuality, Levitt has made a movie that's rather self-absorbed and a little misogynistic.
Levitt plays the title character, a New Jersey Italian bartender/stereotype dubbed by his two best friends as "The Don" because of how well he does with the ladies (apparently, he "crushes" a different one every night). Despite having a full dance sex card, Jon is still unfulfilled -- his conquests are nothing like what he sees in his beloved porn, which he watches to completion multiple times a day. When he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a gorgeous girl who makes him wait for sex while encouraging him to take night classes and hire a cleaning lady. She wants to make him a "better" man -- so long as he's willing never to watch porn again. So he has to be more creative with how he gets his fix, sometimes even looking at it on his phone in class. That's how he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), a widow partial to fits of weeping and hits on joints. As Jon tries on his first adult relationship -- complete with meeting Barbara's friends and family and bringing her home to weekly dinner with his family (which includes Tony Danza as his dad and a mostly-texting Brie Larson as his sister) -- Esther begins to open his eyes to the possibility that there's more to sex than just getting off.

Don Jon is a movie about the emptiness we can sometimes feel when other people fail to meet our expectations of the Way Things Ought To Be. Jon is bombarded by a world in which women are made out to be surgically enhanced fuck dolls, whether they're dancing at a club, selling lingerie, showing up in Carl's Jr. commercials or, of course, in his beloved porn clips. He's disappointed when actual sex isn't anything like porn, leaving him unfulfilled by sex and turning him to watch more porn. The best sex he has is with himself, because that's the only time it can be exactly what he wants it to be. He is a completely selfish character.

Barbara doesn't fare much better, though. She initially seems to be interested in a connection that's more than just physical, but before long it becomes clear that she, like Jon, is trying to shape her world to match the one that exists in her mind -- the World that Should Be. Hers is informed by Hollywood romances and outdated ideas about what successful men should or should not be. She's ultimately just as selfish as Jon. The movie missteps in a big way by turning Barbara into a monster -- a shallow, manipulative opportunist lacking in love and compassion. It's an unflattering portrayal of women, and though Don Jon is clear to point out that she's just "one type" of woman, Barbara makes up one half of the leading females in the movie.
She also exists only in relation to Jon, not so much a person as prop to show us aspects of his character. Except he doesn't have much of a character either, so now Barbara is just a hot girl Jon wants to fuck but can't and who wants to change him even though she shouldn't because that's wrong. Except that, yeah, someone should be changing him. So what are we to make of that? That the performances work is especially impressive, as none of the characters in the movie have more depth than those in a Saturday Night Live sketch. With Jon, that's sort of the point -- he's an empty vessel, a creature of routine, not really waiting to be molded into something else but certainly leaving room for that possibility when the opportunity presents itself.

Julianne Moore is a welcome addition to any movie, even if her character is one of the movie's big problems. It's not her performance, which is good as always, nor is it her chemistry with Levitt -- she brings out a looser, more relaxed side of him as an actor. No, the problem is that Don Jon replaces its Barbara Problem with an Esther Problem. Barbara exists only to punish Jon; Esther is there solely to enlighten him. The women are present only for what they can do for the male lead. Moore creates more of a character than anyone else, mostly because she's given a small amount of back story that's handled with some restraint and, to be blunt, she's the best actor in the movie.

I'm complaining a lot about the politics of the screenplay, but I shouldn't let that overshadow the fact that it's a good movie, well-directed. I'm not the first to mention Edgar Wright in relation to Don Jon's editing, but its an apt comparison; many of the movie's biggest laughs come from the rhythms and repetition of the editing -- the way that Jon's laptop booting up can provide a punchline to a scene, or the way that Jon is shown cursing out every car on the road right before Levitt smash cuts to him walking up to church. The editing isn't always just used for comedic effect, though. There's some very strong visual storytelling throughout the movie that's only made possible by the way that certain images (like Jon walking down the hallway of his gym for a workout/confession) repeat themselves over and over. When those shots begin to change a little, so does Jon.

There's a lot to like in Don Jon, particularly as a first effort from an actor-turned-director. Levitt avoids several of the pitfalls of those that came before him; his movie is not as self-important as Ordinary People, not as precious as Garden State. This is a movie that celebrates being a first movie -- one full of filmmaking ideas from a technical standpoint. It's the kind of movie where you can tell the filmmaker lived with it in his head for a long time before it got made. The movie suggests that Levitt could have a future as a director, even though his screenwriting could use a little work. His heart is in the right place with Don Jon, a movie that ultimately wants to be sweet and believe that positive change is possible. Unfortunately like so many other romantic comedies, the movie seems to think that change is only possible after meeting one magical person.
If there are some sticky issues to unpack in Levitt's script, at least he's made something that leaves the audience with things to talk -- possibly even argue -- about. How many romantic comedies are able to do that?


  1. Overall, I liked the movie...but yeah, the way the women in the movie only really exist in relation to Jon (and that applies to his mother and sister as well) kind of started to bug me even though I could see the point JGL was going for in that,

  2. This was an excellent review. Thank you especially for saying the interesting fact: "and though Don Jon is clear to point out that she's just "one type" of woman, Barbara makes up one half of the leading females in the movie.

    I had a really interesting experience watching this film. I watched it after breaking up with a guy, who I was sure was going to be watching it without me. So, basically, I was hoping that whatever this film said about desirable women - would flatter me in his eyes...somehow. It was a pretty particular experience but my point is I had a lot of motivation to try to identify with the women onscreen in this case.

    So THAT was weird because sure, I identified with Barbara enough sort of, and I was happy about that. Then they turned her into a MONSTER and I had to shift to identifying with Esther. I'm probably more of an Esther-type in real life. But then Esther became an obvious manic-pixie-dream girl, I think Don Jon also had an unrealistic character change (like he would change his hair that way and basically become a hipster), and I left the movie theater feeling disappointed at myself for ever having wanted to fit into a box for a guy's perspective in the first place, and also mad at Don Jon that he had made it so clear that these female characters only existed in boxes for him. It was a weird mix of real world and movie world emotion at the same time, I guess.

    It's just so disappointing that the manic pixie dream girl was not only the answer for him to his personal problems, she was also supposed to be the answer for him to the problem of another girl. I like Joseph Gordon Levitt because he smiles a lot, seems nice and I grew up watching him in Angels in the Outfield every day. But this was one of the most misogynistic films ever. I don't think I'm the lone woman who ever has misogynistic fantasies (they are basically just about wanting to be wanted) but this was eye openingly too much. ~Meredith

    1. These are really interesting reflections on the movie, Meredith. I really appreciate you taking the time to share this story.

      It's a weird, misguided movie, because it wants to suggest it's about a guy whose eyes are opened and who learns to be less of a misogynist, but the answers it provides are just as closed-minded and ugly. It means well, for which it deserves credit. But that also makes it a little more insidious, because it's clearly the work of someone who doesn't know better.

      This was really, really great. Thanks again for posting.