Don Jon – A Review

Let me be up front about this – I may very well be the outlier when it comes to Don Jon. The film, which marks the directorial review of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, received a lot of positive buzz coming out of the Sundance Film Festival. It currently has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 81% fresh, with lots of critics I like and admire giving the films high marks. People seem legitimately excited about this film and I was looking forward to seeing what all the hullabaloo was about. Unfortunately, Don Jon just didn’t speak to me. As much as I wanted to like the film, given my general affinity for Gordon-Levitt, I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I rarely read other reviews before I write my own, but last night I poured over what other critics had to say to try and figure out what exactly it was that I was missing. I’m still at a loss; I am clearly seeing a very different movie than others.

This is not to say that I thought Don Jon was terrible or a bad movie; I think it was generally very well acted and had a very interesting premise. For a first time director and writer, who also stars in the film, it was an above average first effort. But I still think that Don Jon was rough around the edges and doesn’t fully work. There is a lot of promise in this film that makes me think that Gordon-Levitt may turn into a successful writer and/or director if he chooses, but the individual moments that I liked do not add up to a great movie. In this case, the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.

My problems with the film do not derive from the subject matter, though it may make some people uncomfortable. Don Jon is the story of New Jersey bartender (emphasis on the Jersey) Jon (Gordon-Levitt) who is a charming guy who scores effortlessly with the ladies. Regardless of all the sex he has – and he has a lot – none of it can match his one true love: pornography. Jon prefers the images on his computer to the company of actual women. This is true even when he meets the most beautiful woman he’s ever met, Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, who somehow manages to class up Jersey Shore chic). A lifetime of watching pornography has left Jon ill equipped for real intimacy and connection with a woman and has created an unrealistic expectation of sex that leaves him constantly unfulfilled. Barbara brings her own baggage to the relationship, with her perception of love and romance heavily influenced from her diet of romantic comedies. Can Jon and Barbara make this work or will their preconceived notions of what love and sex should be too much to overcome? The film features a lot of images of adult movies; while I can’t say they aren’t gratuitous – it is, after all, porn – they are used sparingly and to illustrate a point. That being said, it’s probably not the best movie to go see with your grandmother or on a first date (depending on your expectations for the date).

Gordon-Levitt and Johansson were very good in their roles and created realistic characters. Johansson in particular seems to be having a lot of fun in this role and really immerses herself in this character. She almost becomes Barbara Sugarman, which is no easy task for an actress that is so well known and recognizable. She and Gordon-Levitt have excellent chemistry together and their scenes are among the best in the movie. The character of Jon is a pretty douche-y character on the surface, but Gordon-Levitt is so likable that even when he is being his most boorish enough of his charm comes through for you to root for him. It would be easy for both of these characters to become cardboard stereotypes, but Gordon-Levitt and Johansson bring some depth and nuance to the roles that make them generally interesting to watch.

That can’t really be said for much of the supporting cast; Tony Danza plays against character as Jon’s dad and steals a lot of the scenes that he is in, but Jon’s mother and friends are very broad. Even Danza’s role isn’t that well defined or developed, but it is so unusual to see him not playing a generally nice guy that it isn’t as noticeable. Julianne Moore plays another student in Jon’s night school class and while she does her usual nice work, the story and pacing of the movie minimize what she is able to do.

While I think that this story idea is novel and raises some interesting issues, the execution didn’t 100% work for me. In particular, I thought the story-line involving Julianne Moore was too rushed and felt shoehorned into a very different movie. There are some very important character developments that come from her scenes, but because the time wasn’t taken to fully integrate her into the story they didn’t feel 100% earned. There was a lot of repetition in the early parts of the film, which help illustrate Jon and his mindset and routine, but I think some of that could have been cut to allow some of the other stories time to breathe. I don’t know that we needed to see all his trip to the gym or every time he looked at porn – though, to his credit, Gordon-Levitt is in amazing shape for this movie and if I were him I would want to show that off a bit as well. It isn’t vanity – these scenes do some character work – but a few less of them would have been beneficially to the story.

The story would have benefitted from a little more nuance and subtly; it’s a comedy, so it is going to be a little broad, but something about this movie just didn’t feel completely finished or developed. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was that most bothered me about this film – there were many things that I did like – but it never completely won me over. That may just be my personal preferences and his vision for this movie weren’t in complete alignment – that sometimes happens. But as much as I wanted to like Don Jon, I left the theater disappointed and a little bored by it. It was a noble first effort by Gordon-Levitt, but he isn’t quite there yet. Don Jon and Gordon-Levitt have potential, but I thought that the film was a work in progress.

Some other thoughts:

  • There are some fun cameos in the fake rom-coms that Barbara likes to watch.
  • The idea that Barbara’s romantic expectations are shaped by her love of chick flicks is an idea that is certainly raised, but not fully explored. Don Jon is far more focused on Jon’s porn addiction, which I was a little disappointed in. I think this is an interesting phenomenon; one of my favorite parts of Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs was the chapter that looked at these issues.
  • Of course, my interest in the above could be influenced by my hope that it would validate my belief that chick flicks are generally horrible drivel.
  • There is an amusing running gag in Don Jon involving Jon’s sister (played by Brie Larson) that I won’t ruin.
  • Any film that incorporates Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations” into it has promise.
  • If you drink every time that Jon and Barbara call each other “baby,” you will be drunk in no time.
  • I am not joking about the porn clips – there are a lot of them.

I may simply be missing the boat on Don Jon; perhaps this really is a fantastic film that simply isn’t my cup of tea. I’m usually not so out of sync with popular and critical opinions.  I didn’t dislike Don Jon enough to discourage people from seeing it. The leads are fun to watch and it has an interesting premise, but it just doesn’t stick the landing. A respectable effort that makes me interested in whatever Gordon-Levitt does next, but a film that doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

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