MM: DON JON review
So it’s a Tuesday Movie Monday but better late than never, right?!
Recently, I traveled to NYC to visit friends and was able to go see a movie in the theater – a feat only accomplished on weekends without children. We went to see DON JON, a romantic comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s a modern-day envisioning of the “Don Juan” character who romances women, but this movie isn’t about his conquests, it’s about his flaws. Gordon-Levitt’s “Jon” is addicted to porn and despite the revolving door of ladies he sleeps with night after night, week after week, he only finds true sexual satisfaction in porn.
I didn’t actually know this when I went into the movie. I thought it was a romantic comedy about a lothario who finally falls in love with his match, played by Scarlett Johansson. The movie opens with in-your-face images of porn, stretched across the big screen, cut throughout with close-ups of Gordon-Levitt’s O-face and set to moans and groans and Gordon-Levitt’s voiceover telling us about the unrivaled power and pleasure of porn. Cards on the table. Overall, it was funny, smart, and extremely well-done. The high-paced editing punched up the action and kept the story going at a clipped pace and slowed down when it needed to. There were a couple of scenes toward the end of the movie that felt a little dull compared to the rest because the complexity of the themes became over-simplified or stereotypical. When Johansson’s “Barbara” can’t handle the fact that Jon watches porn at all it pushed believability without her explaining it a bit. I could understand her outrage at his lies or at the amount of porn that he watched, but it felt like she was more disgusted by the idea entirely. Likewise Julianne Moore’s character as a middle-aged woman going to night school was the thinnest of all, though she probably holds more depth and character than any other in this story. She becomes the beacon of reality, the representation of compromise and communion in relationships that slowly leads Jon to a new understanding of sex.
I wanted there to be a little more balance at the end. I left feeling like Jon realized that porn was a fantasy that he no longer needed, like leaving behind a drug addiction. And while that may be true for his character, I was intrigued by the conversation this movie sparked about the male mind being something primal and sexual and that that is OK. There is a reason and a use for porn that doesn’t exclude the ability to have a meaningful relationship, or even meaningful sex. Men looking at women walking by doesn’t have to mean they don’t appreciate their own woman’s looks. It doesn’t mean that they will cheat, or leave. It might be a part of the evolutionary instinct to spread their seed, but what ultimately counts is their self-control and their action. While the ending to DON JON wasn’t explicitly anti-porn, it let that conversation hang. And maybe that’s another genius move: let the audience sort out what is right for their own relationships.
The acting was phenomenal. I want to be able to speak like a Jersey boy/girl and Gordon-Levitt and Johansson did such great jobs with not only their verbal language, but their body language as well. The way their eyes lasered onto their targets, the way their hands flipped, their shoulders squared, their hips moved, everything was on point. It wasn’t imitation, it was embodiment. And, more importantly, I think it was embodiment without ridicule. I wasn’t laughing AT the way they talked or acted, I accepted it as who they were, and the comedy came from their flawed thought-process. If Gordon-Levitt’s “Jon” thinks he can only find true satisfaction through porn, Johansson’s “Barbara” thinks she can only find true love through schmaltzy romantic comedies. They are both living in their heads, in fantasies of their own creation, and those fantasies don’t intersect with real life. At least, not in the way they expect or are willing to accept. It’s a very mature look at growing up and realizing that what we think we want is not always how it looks or feels or becomes in reality. And the best part is that that “message” is subtly revealed through the actions of the characters, supported by their backstories, and covered by flashy, fun, good-looking images/sound so you don’t feel hammered by the theme.
Apparently, Gordon-Levitt and Johansson didn’t know each other before the movie, but the way they interact on screen it looked like two long-time best friends having the time of their lives flirting and enjoying these characters. It was a pleasure to watch. And I felt like I really got to see them push things the extra mile. While I’ve seen Johansson play the bombshell before, the reality of what was going on in Barbara’s mind – the inflexibility, the need for control, the self-centered-ness – colored her character in a way that gave the sexy exterior a lot of depth. Likewise with Gordon-Levitt, it was almost a shock to see the goofy, boy-faced actor turn into a chiseled hunk of man that oozed sex and confidence. This is a far cry from 500 DAYS OF SUMMER.
And the acting successes don’t just lie with the two leads, all the supporting characters play their roles with unbridled commitment and joy. My favorite is Tony Danza as Jon’s father. Obsessed with sports and constantly in a wife-beater, he loves his family and curses up a storm. My other favorite, was the sister-role of Monica, played by Brie Larson. She spends the ENTIRE movie isolating herself from her loud and crazy family by texting and using her phone. At the dinner table, in church, everywhere. She doesn’t even speak, she just casts annoyed glances every once in a while. However, toward the end of the movie when Jon is admitting his failure at maintaining a relationship with Barbara, much to his parents’ dismay, Monica pipes up that Barbara had no real interest in Jon, just in her romantic comedy fantasy and that he was better off without her. It’s such a surprising moment, and brilliant.
When the credits ran after the movie, I was stunned to see Gordon-Levitt’s name as both writer and director. Not that I don’t think he’s smart or capable, but this really was a powerhouse of a debut and while I think Gordon-Levitt is a talented actor, I haven’t really seen him in anything that carried a lot of weight or that, as an audience member, felt really challenging. Now, I’ll go see whatever he’s in. Apparently, he’s done a number of short films. I’ll see all of those too.