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Hip to be Square

by John Rodat on October 3, 2013

Don Jon
Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt


When asked to review Don Jon, I considered the possibility that I was being punk’d. The movie was written and directed by its leading man, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and it co-stars Scarlett Johansson. I am not particularly charmed by Gordon-Levitt (though I enjoyed Brick) and I have actively disliked everything about Johansson that I have seen since Ghost World. Everything. Interviews included.

But I’m a trooper. And, who are we kidding?  It’s fun to beat up on celebrities in print, sometimes.

I guess I’m going to have to wait for the next Julia Roberts movie. Because, whatever our sado-prankish arts editor’s intentions, I enjoyed Don Jon. In fact, I believe Gordon-Levitt could be a greater success—both critically and popularly—behind the camera as he has been busy before it.

Gordon-Levitt and Johansson in Don Jon

Despite the film’s ostensibly risqué subject matter, porn addiction, it’s really an incredibly traditional, even square, movie at heart. This is more warning than criticism. Gordon-Levitt has dabbled in the outré and explicit (playing a gay hustler in Gregg Araki’s truly, truly terrible Mysterious Skin, for example), and one might expect a young director eager to make a splash to head straight toward the margins. If you’re looking for transgressive filmmaking, look elsewhere.

Instead—to his credit, I believe—Gordon-Levitt made a solid romantic comedy, dressed it in just enough taboo to be titillating in a trailer and to lead viewers slightly, intentionally, astray.  Early in a new relationship, Gordon-Levitt’s character Jon, a frequently sleeveless New Jersey bro and a chronic masturbator, complains in voiceover about the constants in his girlfriends’ taste in filmed entertainment: the love at first sight, the first kiss, the breakup, the makeup, the expensive wedding, and the ride off into the sun. It is in his opinion, bullshit.

Of course, the “irony” is that Jon’s fascination with pornography relies on an equally detailed and unrealistic shopping list of clichés—just filthier. It is easy to expect, as we have seen in so many of the type of romcoms parodied beneath this narration, that the shallow, swaggering lead will reveal his defining hurt, admit his need and be reconciled to the happy ever after. This is not exactly what happens.

What does happen though is no less conventional in its message: Selfishness in love is unsatisfying, and control in love is stultifying. Real love, and real lovemaking, are not about escape from one another, but into one another. Love is patient, love is kind. . . . Yep, it’s that corny.

But it’s well done. Gordon-Levitt and his supporting actors pull off the tremendously delicate job of portraying Jersey Shore-like beefheads as comic without seeming like Saturday Night Live characterizations. The interactions between Jon and his barhopping, tail-chasing friends are actually quite funny, and offset by believable warmth. And, yes, (sigh), Scarlett Johansson does a very good job as Barbara, the gum-snapping Jersey dime (that’s a 10, get it?).

And this is the thing that may really work to Gordon-Levitt’s advantage: As an actor, he thinks like an actor. Everybody had their best lines punched, everybody got their close-up and everybody looked great. Gordon-Levitt looked great in the many loving close-ups of his leering ape’s smirk; Johansson, duh, looked great, whether filmed above or below the waist; even Tony Danza looked great. Talent’s going to want to work with this guy. And, as he wrote a crowd-pleasing, feel-good movie with enough intelligence and craft to bring to mind more eccentric storytellers like Paul Thomas Anderson, they’d be out of their minds not to.