Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Written by Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Brie Larson
Back in July of this year I was lucky enough to catch an advanced screening of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon. I was impressed with it then – with the confidence and swagger with which the film is executed, with how distinct Gordon-Levitt’s touch is in every frame and word of dialogue, with its exquisite sense of rhythm and its charming unconventionality – and I am just as impressed with it now. And just having had a chance to watch it for a second time now that it’s out in wide release, I find myself discovering new angles of thought and currents of idea that benefit and become more visible from a second viewing. I find myself grateful for the chance to revisit Don Jon, to delve deeper into the film beyond its surface narrative and to uncover the important layers. And it is still just as entertaining.
Don Jon is a film about Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a New Jerseyite who enjoys his everyday routines – his work out, his Sunday church, his girls, and most of all his porn. But when Jon meets his dream girl Barbara (Scarlett Johansson, in a role that was literally written for her), Jon’s comfortable life gets complicated. While Barbara tries to change him to serve her own Hollywood built rom-com agenda, Jon mostly inserts her into his routines and pursues his porn addiction in secret. But when Barbara finds out about the porn, their break up leads Jon to question his reliance on porn and what he really wants from life. Julianne Moore comes along as Esther, Jon’s night school classmate, a lively, unconventional, and secretly tragic woman who pushes Jon’s buttons and asks him the tough, honest questions that light his way.
On the surface there are the obvious themes like self-discovery, coming of age, self-improvement, love, family, etc. Luckily, Gordon-Levitt is certainly versed well enough in movie clichés to either avoid them or use them to his advantage. Take for example the rom-com parody sequence featuring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatem as stereotypical romantic leads in a tritely plotted film within a film. While this sequence is clever and funny on its own as a simple parody of the chick flick genre, women’s attraction to them, and men’s consequent subjection to them, it also draws attention to the running theme of media manipulation and propagation of societal norms.
Many modern romantic comedies reinforce a number of harmful social conventions regarding feminism, relationships, love, and female objectification and self-worth. As a result, Barbara has some unrealistic ideas about how relationships should be. The same can be said about Jon and his exposure to pornography. Gordon-Levitt’s Jon makes an interesting point, telling Barbara that the movies that she watches aren’t any better than his porn – and he’s probably right. Unfortunately, each of their one-sided views on love are mutually exclusive and the relationship collapses.
This theme of media manipulation runs discretely throughout the whole film, made all the more noticeable by the recent addition of an opening montage of the media’s objectification of women set to a sexy techno beat – video clips of commercials, music videos, work out programs, weather broadcasts, all displaying females sexily and scantily dressed, focusing exclusively on their “assets”. There is a lot about this movie that will make feminists appreciate Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
I have written before about Gordon-Levitt’s excellent timing and sense of rhythm, how there is a lot of repetition and variation that occurs during the movie, forming layers of juxtaposition. Upon second viewing, it is fascinating to realize that even when we think things are changing in Jon’s life, that Barbara might be changing him in a very fundamental way, that he basically remains the same. Jon’s routine visit to the gym is only modified by the fact that Barbara is there with him. Jon’s aggressive driving habits remain the same with or without Barbara in the car. His weekly visit to church is unwavering with or without Barbara in the pew next to him.
It is late in the movie, after an important experience changes the way he thinks about life, that we see these beloved, comfortable, stifling routines shift, and we know things are turning around for him on a very real, fundamental level. Any complaints about repetition would be ignoring the fact that this repetitiveness forms an important foundation that makes the breaking of it that much more affecting.
And yes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt himself is magnificent. He is as fabulous to watch in Don Jon as he is on Jimmy Fallon’s Lip-Sync Off last week (seriously, look it up). Don Jon is vibrating with Gordon-Levitt’s personal brand of charm – with confidence, swagger, and just the right mix of machismo and humility. And while Don Jon does tend to revel in itself and its own style, we can forgive its indulgence because it is a film that can most definitely be reveled in, time and time again.