Sunday, September 4, 2016

Don Jon

This review of Jo-Go's "romantic comedy for boys" was written at the time of the film's release

Know Thyself
The Tissue of Lies in Fantasy-land

Don Jon is going to piss so many people off and throw a wedge into so many relationships it's not even funny. Don Jon is, fortunately (funny, that is), and that's what makes its nasty streak in saying "There ain't no Santa Claus" to movie audiences palatable.

Written, directed and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (guess Lake Bell's In a World isn't a lock for The Orson Welles Award for over-achievement), it's about all sorts of things, but we'll let the show's protagonist, Jon Martello explain the crux of it.

Very early on in the movie he explains himself by voice-over: "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."

Okay, I know, but hold on, despite the elephant in the room—that last one—look at that description. "My" is the word repeated most often. How do you spell "narcissism" in New Jersey?  Same way you spell it in the rest of the world, but Jon has nothing to do with the rest of the world, as his sphere is finite. His work-life is devoted to two shots. Everything else—the workouts, the church—they're all shot the same, with the same set-up, different clothes, the implication being a comic sameness. There's not an awful lot of growth here (and the film is just that much more economical by having all the different time-frames throughout the film being covered by the same camera set-up—nice).
His family is a Jersey comic stereotype. Father and son sit around the table in wife-beaters, Mom flutters around the table, Sister only has I's for her I-phone. Everybody shouts a lot, and the feeling is you're watching a "Nature" documentary on pecking order and dominance rituals. His "boys" (who give him the "Don" moniker), are club sycophants or beards or plovers to pick up The Don's rejects. The club prospects are on the traditional 10 scale, with the unattainable perfect being "a dime," but he'll settle for an 8 or 9 and it's a matter of some cursory chatting up, pre-lim making out and then catching a cab home.

Now, here's where it gets sticky. Jon's hook-ups are always temporary, and the sex is never satisfying. Why? Because it's nothing like what he can find on the Internet on the porn-sites.  For him, that's ultimate, and, just like his lap-top, all it takes for him to turn on is to hear the Apple "chime." He's hooked, and there's no one in real life who can live up to the fantasy bimbos he can watch on his lap-top. Of course, the odds are stacked here—porn performers are going off script and we're all just winging it, but Jon is waiting for "the one" who is everything he could want in the flesh.
Really, this is just to increase my Internet "hits."
And then he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johannson), gum-chewing, Joysey-speakin' "dime" who doesn't roll over as fast as other girls do, and, in fact, can't believe that Jon would think that she would...evah...evah...go home with him from the club. So, Jon changes the plan of attack.  Meet for coffee, go out a couple times, yadda-yadda.... But, no. Barbara keeps him on a very tight leash. Always tell her "the trooth," go back to school, maybe, learn a trade, get a better job than his bar-tending, and maybe...
Jon is going insane over this. He's made Barbara a project that he wants to conquer, but there is so much "pro quo" before getting to the "quid" and the penance at the confessional he goes to every week is really starting to add up. But, it's here that Don Jon (the movie, not the guy) gets interesting rather than just prurient. Barbara likes to go to the movies...

When you're ready...*
End scene.

"Everybody knows it's fake but they watch it like it's real f@#ing life." See what Gordon-Levitt is doing there? He's drawing a parallel between porn and romance movies, and he's right (even if he fails miserably at making a completely "anti-movie" movie). They're both nearly perfect fantasy-worlds (because you only achieve "perfection" in commercials) in which the dreams and desires of the audiences so captivated are achieved and their expectations of real life are fulfilled, while also subsequently raising said expectations impossibly high to the point of nearly science-fiction levels. I mean, "Bachelorette"-high (after all, that movie they watched—"Someone Special"—stars Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway**) How can anything (within this economy) match those romantic expectations of "perfect situational love?" And what woman, outside of monetary gain, would ever run the gauntlet of porn? (One does, after all, have to be able to walk, eventually). There's got to be a morning after, and nothing can be sustained over time, and may grow tiresome and old with enough rapidity. With porn and romance movies, you switch partners and the quest for fulfillment and innovation (if we can call it that) begins anew.
Really, this is just to increase my Internet "hits."

Where the humor, sad as it is, comes in Don Jon*** is that he is so insular he sees that quality right off the bat in everybody else, but it takes forever to see it in himself. And that brings us right to the problem of Don Jon, entertaining as it might be.

Gordon-Levitt spends an awful lot of screen-time presenting the problem (not that the title character ever sees it as anything but a sometimes annoying irritant), but the fairly standard relationship the character has with Julianne Moore's normally neurotic character, Esther**** is barely explored at all. 
One can speculate until next Friday why that is, but the relationship between Jon and Esther is given short shrift, making it feel sketchy and a little desperate to resolve the movie. It may have something to do with the broad theme of objectification in the fantasy-world, or it illustrates that a relationship should be easier to achieve than the Jon/Barbara example (but that seems rather unnecessary given that we've seen lots of very easy relationships that last one night and that's it) but by JG-L's "hurry-up-and-let's-get-through-with-this" approach, it undercuts the point somewhat, if there's that point to be made. And if the film-maker is adept enough to know that, he might be sending mixed signals between form and content.
I don't know. Maybe he just had to edit in a hurry to get the movie out to theaters.

So, as much as one might want to gush about Gordon-Levitt's hat-trick here, and how he's being edgy and honest, one has to wonder if he really knows what he's doing, and if he'll improve the next film around.

** Personally, I'd have gone with Ashley Judd or Katherine Heigl.  And I would have used a familiar rock-song title for the movie's title, but hey, it's close enough to the truth....

*** Ya know something?  I simply gave up and conceded that everything was going to sound like a dirty joke about five paragraphs ago.

**** Am I spoiling this here?  I think not, because for all Gordon-Levitt's honesty about the crock of romantic movies, he still is privy to following the "happily-ever-after" arc, as the film's poster is quick to reveal.

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