Don Jon: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s interesting directorial debut

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In the midst of watching a bajillion horror movies for Spook Series 2013, I kind of let this film slide. It’s been out for about a month, and I’ve been anxious to see it not only because I admire Joseph Gordon-Levitt (his talent as well as that pretty face), but because I’ve heard a lot of good buzz. I’m always up for a good comedy, and this seemed like something fresh. So I finally found some time to check it out.

Though Gordon-Levitt has directed several shorts, Don Jon is his first feature-length project. And he isn’t simply the director—he’s the star and the writer to boot. Can’t say the fella lacks ambition. And, truly, this is an ambitious film that asks some interesting questions. How much has the media affected romantic expectations for both men and women? How do we connect with people in a world ruled by television and texting and the internet? There are even a few questions about family and religion thrown in there. But let’s get to the most important question for this review: does Don Jon tackle these issues in an effective way? Well…kind of.

Synopsis: “A New Jersey guy dedicated to his family, friends, and church, develops unrealistic expectations from watching porn and works to find happiness and intimacy with his potential true love.” Borrowed from my favorite movie site, IMDb.

The Good: It’s fresh, funny, clever, and it tackles a potentially off-putting subject in a surprisingly charming way. I mean, this film is about a superficial, foul-mouthed guy who is addicted to porn and goes through women like no one you’ve ever seen. Yet Gordon-Levitt’s Jon (nicknamed “Don Jon” by his friends) is so frank and unintentionally funny that you can’t help liking him. He’s a simple guy who keeps a strict, monotonous schedule revolving around what he loves most. He says it best himself: “There’s only a few things I really care about in life. My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn.” You quickly realize something is off about Jon whenever he ranks porn right up there with family and friends, but he thinks he’s perfectly normal. He has no clue that his unhealthy addiction has completely distorted his expectations not only in the bedroom, but in life. But when he meets clever, beautiful Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he thinks he has found the girl of his dreams. Jon finds himself reluctantly changing for Barbara, yet he struggles to give up what disgusts her most: his porn. You root for Jon on his bumpy road to love, but at some point you realize what you really want is for him to become capable of making connections with people—real connections that make him happier than his ridiculous porn. And Jon isn’t the only one with unrealistic expectations. Barbara is a sucker for sappy romance films where the men are all Prince Charming (or in this case a weeping Channing Tatum), which is why she expects so much of Jon. It’s a fascinating commentary on how media has affected a generation of young people looking for love. The script is great, the characters are well-developed, and the film puts a new spin on a genre very easily weighed down by clichés. Favorite scene: The humor in Don Jon is great, but my favorite funny moments take place in his car. He rages in several foul-mouthed tirades on his way to church (hilarious irony), and he provides us with a lovely falsetto version of Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations.” Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

The Bad: The film begins as edgy and smart, setting up a lot of great potential. Problem is, it fails to deliver in the end. The sappiness present in pretty much every romantic comedy is ridiculed at the beginning of the film, yet the end of Don Jon has a similar sappy tone. For a film of this nature, a tonal shift is inevitable, of course; it would be more unsatisfying if there wasn’t any change. But that doesn’t keep you from wanting…more. Or just wanting a different ending completely. The film finishes so abruptly that it’s difficult to process what happens. I’m not even exactly sure what the takeaway is supposed to be. I have some theories, but I worry that anything I say would ruin the ending, and I hate spoilers, so I’ll keep those thoughts to myself. Basically, I feel like this film is kind of scattered, as if it can’t decide what it wants to be. It has a great set-up with lots of interesting threads, yet the threads trail off and fade away, becoming half-explored ideas. There’s plenty about Don Jon to admire, but I find myself admiring it more than I actually like it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves me feeling fairly confused. P.S. In case you couldn’t already tell, this film is packed with nudity, sexual content, and language. If any of those things make you uncomfortable, give Don Jon a wide berth. Least favorite scene: As I said, the end. I’ll only reveal this: Esther (Julianne Moore) becomes a friend and mentor for Jon. Her character is great, but I don’t know if I love her involvement in the end. To me, it’s just…weird.

To Sum It Up: As far as directorial and writing debuts go, Gordon-Levitt doesn’t disappoint. So much of Don Jon is unique, funny, and smart—especially as a first effort. Unfortunately, the ending is a little weak and some of the most interesting aspects fizzle out toward the end. Still, if you’re a fan of the genre (and especially if you’re a fan of JGL), I’d say this film is worth a view. I can honestly say that I look forward to Gordon-Levitt’s future directing endeavors.

My Grade: B

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8 thoughts on “Don Jon: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s interesting directorial debut

  1. Excellent review! 🙂 Yeah – I’m getting all “horrored out”. Lol. Think I’ll do a review for The Way Way Back before I finish the horror stuff. I wasn’t sure about this one when I first saw the trailer but I do love JGL and the reviews I’ve read have made it sound alright. I’ll check it out (November 15th in the UK. Hate how we have to wait for films here!).

    • You have to wait until mid-November?? Wow that’s quite a lag! If you’re a JGL fan, I think you’ll like it, but it’s…different. Lol. I would love to see your review of The Way Way Back! I’ve heard so many good things, but I have yet to see it myself.

    • It’s one of those films you’re glad you saw, but then you’re in no rush to see it again soon. But I still think JGL has a lot of potential as a director.

      • I do, too. He makes some clever choices (the way he recycles his visual motifs & the subtlety by which he shows us the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). I don’t think this is a resounding success but it isn’t a complete failure either.

  2. A very interesting debut from JGL, even if the final act does get a bit messy. But with time, he’ll continue to get better, and better, and better. Good review.

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