Monday, January 13, 2014

"Don Jon" vs. Rom-Com

People have been complaining about the state of romantic comedies for years, me included, so it's nice to see one come along that happily subverts the status quo while still being, unarguably, a romantic comedy. Written, directed, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular ladies man, this film has been billed in some circles as a more realistic story about relationships from the point of view of a typical guy. The main character, Jon Martello, is a modernized version of the famous lover, a nightclub-hopping ladies' man who never gets emotionally involved with his conquests and admits that pornography is better at sexually gratifying him than his flings with actual women. There's a "Jersey Shore" vibe too, since Jon is Italian-American and from what appears to be the New York area. In short, this isn't your typical rom-com hero.

But then into his life comes the girl, the "dime," as Jon refers to her, a rare winner of the top score on the 1-10 scale that he and his buddies use to rate potential hookups. This is Barbara (Scarlett Johanssen), whose sex appeal is so high that she gets Jon to break many of his rules in order to win her over. He finds himself getting into a real relationship with her, and willing to meet her demands, including going back to school. The only real sticking point is Jon's consumption of internet porn, which Barbara has no tolerance for, and Jon finds difficult to give up. Does the real girl win out over the digital ones? Well, it's not as simple as that, and Jon discovers that he's got a few other issues that he needs to work out regarding his love life.

I'm not surprised that this film has gotten some mixed reactions, especially from audiences who traditionally enjoy romantic-comedies. "Don Jon" is so much raunchier and testosterone driven than your typical romance, initially it comes as something of a shock. We see R-rated, but still fairly graphic examples of the porn Jon prefers, and he describes his masturbation practices for us without a hint of shame. He uses pick-up-artist techniques and discusses women as disposable objects without hesitation. Jon is charming enough to get away with it, of course, but it's also clear that he is not bad person. He does nothing out of line with any of the women we see him with, but he's got certain notions about relations with the opposite gender that are troubling.

"Don Jon" offers some interesting commentary on the differing versions of ideal love connections that modern day men and women often subscribe to. Jon may have bought into the player culture to a potentially damaging degree, but Barbara has been similarly conditioned to expect the fairy-tale romance. Of course, she's a fan of more typical romantic comedies. Where did Jon's ideas about gender relations come from? Well, there's his family, headed by his hyper-masculine father, played with delightful brashness by Tony Danza. And then there are Jon's weekly trips to the church confessional, where all his myriad transgressions are easily confessed and absolved.

Jon doesn't interact with women who aren't family or don't score high on his rating scale, so the most important relationship he develops in the film isn't with Barbara, but with an older woman he happens to meet and become friends with at college, Esther (Julianne Moore). Most of the discussions of "Don Jon" I've read don't talk about her much, probably because her role involves a lot of spoilers. That's a shame, because she is a big reason why the film works as well as it does. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is the one driving the film, of course, but many of his better scenes are with Moore. I'm sorry to say that Scarlett Johanssen feels a little wasted. She looks great, but there's really not much to her character.

As for Gordon-Levitt as a director, this is certainly a promising first film, nice and light without feeling flippant, stylized without feeling overworked. Moreover, I find it encouraging that this is the kind of material he chose to tackle for his debut, a friendly tweak on a masculine ideal that fits right in with Michael Bay's "Pain & Gain" and Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street." And he got to play a role that I don't think anybody would have thought to cast him as - mind you, I hope this isn't indicative of the role that Gordon-Levitt wants to play from now on. One movie with him as The Situation's stand-in was fun, but it could get old real quick.

"Don Jon" skews more guy-friendly, but I certainly enjoyed it and appreciated its aims. It should be an entertaining watch for anyone that doesn't mind a little smut and knows what they're getting themselves into. And for those of us tired of the usual rom-com formulas, it's a welcome change of pace.


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