Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Don Jon (review)


I have to admit, I had some pretty unreasonable expectations for this movie. I don't mean they were unreasonable because of how high they were (which was pretty high), but because they were based on a single line of dialogue from the trailer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character compares sappy romantic comedies to pornography, and immediately I expect a thorough and detailed critique of the genre. But I'm glad Don Jon is what it is rather than what I had been hoping for, because its talents are much more varied than a simple genre satire would have allowed for. Oh, and it's more fun this way, but who cares about that sort of thing?

So Don Jon is about this guy named Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is called Don by his friends because of his reputation with women. Jon can get with whoever he wants, and he only goes for the hottest woman in the room. Then Jon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), "the most beautiful thing" Jon has ever seen, but Barbara won't be had as easily as the others. Perhaps more importantly, Barbara won't tolerate Jon's habit of watching pornography. Jon gets caught and the two eventually split, but if you think there's a typical romantic comedy ending coming you're in for a big (and pleasant) surprise.

First and maybe most importantly, Don Jon is definitely funny. It has a wonderfully frank and honest attitude towards its content (pornography, movies, and romance in general). There are also a few jokes thrown in about the movie industry which is something I always enjoy. What struck me even more than this, however, was its presentation. The movie's form is just as much a joke (in a good way) as its content. When Jon picks up women at the club he follows a routine: makes eye contact, has a drink with them, dances with them, makes out with them, and brings them home for a good time. This is accompanied by some great editing and scoring so each time it happens is a bit funnier than the last.

That face.

In a similar vein I thought the cinematography was creative and fun. We get not only Jon's routine for how to pick up women, but for the rest of his life. This emphasis on repetition and routine give us a sense both of the monotony of his life and more importantly of how and where he finds enjoyment in that monotony. The form functions as character development. There are also two scenes in particular that struck me. First, Jon's at a restaurant watching porn on his phone waiting for Barbara to arrive (it makes a little more sense in context, but yeah, it's pretty weird). After she arrives the film crosscuts between the dinner date and the porn video playing out in Jon's mind. This scene ends a bit anticlimactically, but the technique works wonderfully to build tension. Then when Jon and Barbara break up there's a wonderful stop motion sequence which functions as a fresh replacement for the ubiquitous Post Breakup Depression Montage while continuing to highlight the repetition in Jon's life.

There's one last thing I need to talk about before getting into the film's critique, and that's Jon's sister. In every single scene she's on her phone and it's absolutely hilarious. Towards the end of the film, however, she interjects her one line during an argument between Jon and his parents to say that Barbara never really loved him, she was just using him to live out her romantic fairy-tale fantasy. On the one hand, this helps her character by showing that while she may not pay attention all the time she's certainly smart. On the other, it emphasizes her point, an important move since even if the audience had figured it out already it's necessary for the movie to move on with its themes.

How could those screens be so close to each other?

Speaking of which, I guess it's finally time for me to do that overanalyzing thing. So the critique I expected to come from this movie was one about how romantic comedies create dangerous fantasies for young women. There are far too many movies where the successful relationship solves the crisis rather than having the resolution come from the hard work of the protagonist. This creates the idea that when the right person comes along they'll solve all the problems in your life and also allows for a mental state where you'll put up with all sorts of awful things in the present for the sake of a future where life will be better. Don Jon does touch on this idea a little bit, but in a slightly different way. Barbara is in love with love, and the movie does end up attributing this to her obsession with movie romances, but her problem is different. She sees men like Jon sees women, simply as canvases on which to paint her own fantasy.

The thing is, Don Jon is really better for avoiding a simple genre critique. It ultimately ends up tackling a larger theme: love. See, the whole issue of Jon's addiction to pornography and the critique of Barbara's one-sided fantasies both serve the greater purpose of a discussion about love. As Jodie Foster's character points out (in fewer words), the difference between fucking and making love is the same as the difference between losing yourself in your own fantasy and losing yourself in another person. And here we come full circle back to my expectations. I wanted the movie to fill out my fantasy of a rom-com critique, and as such wasn't really ready to engage with it. And while Don Jon certainly has its imperfections (lies are just as bad for relationships as they are for plot crisis fodder), I left the theater wanting to go back and see it again, and that's a rare occurrence for me and Hollywood's most overplayed genre.


2 comments:

  1. This movie will go direct to DVD in Australia, but it sounds like a lot of fun. In terms of your over-analysing bit, I think I'd prefer a woman as a companion who had an interest in erotica than romantic comedies, haha. I'm just thinking about the recent influx of pornographic novels for women and the upcoming film adaptation for '50 Shades of Grey' and it's real exciting that women think this way, at least some of them. Still, maybe just cougars like porn literature. Romantic comedies might soon die as women demand good on-screen sex scenes instead.

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    1. Yeah I would definitely recommend this movie. I thought it was hilarious. And if our society is moving towards a world which reveals the underlying nature of the romantic comedy, I think I wouldn't be one to complain.

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