Film Review: Don Jon

by Chad Liffmann on September 27, 2013

A modern day romance with expectations to dash expectations.

Do Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson see eye to eye in 'Don Jon'?

Do Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson see eye to eye in ‘Don Jon’?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been acting for over twenty-five years.  It should come as no surprise that he’s finally decided to write and direct, and with his debut, Don Jon, it’s a shame he didn’t start sooner.  Hopefully this is just the first of many.  In our roundtable interview, Gordon-Levitt stated that his hopes were to capture a relationship that involved two people that “have these unrealistic expectations and keep missing each other.”  With his experience, Gordon-Levitt was no stranger to the expectations and unrealistic images that pop culture (specifically movies, television, and commercials) thrust upon young minds.  Using a very tight and clever script, and with pitch perfect performances from all involved, his goal is accomplished.  Don Jon is a brave and unique modern day romance.

Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello, a “modern day Don Juan”, and thus nicknamed ‘Don Jon’ by his buddies because of his uncanny ability to pick up a new woman every weekend.  Martello is tidy and fit, obsessed with his appearance, his car, and his steady agenda of women, church…and porn.  He watches a lot of internet pornography.  He even keeps track of how many instances he watches online porn and admits to the numbers in the church confessional every week.  But, even with a steady diet of actual sex, pornography is still what Jon Martello needs to really reach sexual oblivion.  When he meets the confident and sexy Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), Jon faces the dilemma of changing his ways in order to live up to Barbara’s romantic, and subservient, traditional expectations that she has derived from mainstream romantic movies.  Jon, on the other hand, expects Barbara to fulfill all his sexual desires, basically to fit into the mold of a sexual goddess.  Each character has entered into the relationship with certain hopes and expectations, and when they aren’t met, disagreements arise.  Jon receives no aid from his nagging neurotic mother (Glenne Headly) and stubborn macho father (Tony Danza), and barely says a word to his distracted sister (Brie Larson).  Jon is only able to find an unlikely source of advice from Esther, an emotional older woman in a night class he begins taking at Barbara’s behest.

The film is structured in a way that limits the number of locations, much to the benefit of the story.  Jon appears out of his element when he’s in a place that doesn’t fit in with the general repetitive structure of his everyday routine: church, gym, club, home, etc.  We get the same camera angled shots of Jon at these aforementioned places, including quick shots of his used tissues dropping into the trash, climbing the steps at church, walking into the weight room, etc.  Not only does this tactic move the story along with a dose of redundant humor, but it also captures Jon’s ‘absorption’ into his own ideal lifestyle.

The film’s sexuality is erotic and confident.  Don Jon features very honest observations, and sugar coats it with unabashed humor.  It may gloss over some real personal dramas in a way that most romantic comedies tend to do, but otherwise, the film strikes a reasonably unique tone.  In fact, it’s almost ironic that the marketing tactics used for Don Jon will spark expectations for laugh-out-loud, light-hearted romantic fare that audiences are accustomed to (it’s proven to work for the box office), but the film really doesn’t offer much of it.  Don Jon offers more sincerity than that, and more depth, just packaged together with considerable charm.

But in the end, this is the Joseph Gordon-Levitt show, whether or not he intended it to be.  As he grows older, his eternally boyish looks could hinder his ability to take on more machismo roles, but he makes his physique work here (plus the added gym bod).  His direction and script leave no room for fluff, and it’s a welcome sight when the film doesn’t conform to the standard romantic comedy arc.  The edits are quick and sleek, the humor spot on, and the message is clear.  All credit goes to JGL, and why not, we all know he’s earned it.

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Don Jon opens in Bay Area theaters today, Friday, September 27th.

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