Don Jon is a great example why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The promos of the film build it up to be a shallow sex comedy capitalizing on the social punching bag that is “Guido” culture ( the protagonist is from Staten Island by the way, so fuck you Jersey haters ). Once it opens, it’s obvious that despite the marketing campaign, it’s actually an affectionate satire on American media that includes the types of films it appears to be.
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the titular Jon, who’s prowess with the ladies leads his friends to call him “Don Jon”. His nickname is a pun on real life 16th century “libertine” ( i.e. manwhore ) Don Juan. But despite his luck with ladies, Jon is bored with promiscuity. Things seem to turn around when during one of his regular club outings he meets Barbara Sugarman ( Scarlett Johansson ) who stands out from the rest ( i.e. doesn’t put out on the first night ). He then proceeds to and succeeds in wooing her, but ends up in a relationship that isn’t entirely perfect.
The first element of Jon’s characterization we are given is his obsession with internet porn. He’s not much into ACTUAL sex, despite having lots of it. This is very novel for a mainstream film: most films that acknowledge pornography do so to establish that those who watch it can’t get laid ( Superbad, Kick-Ass ). Having a character who gets laid A LOT and still watches pornography opens up a conversation about its mainstream appeal. Jon doesn’t just watch porn, he ritualizes it. The film’s portrayal of porn addiction is both hilarious and troubling. Jon’s laptop is on a mostly barren black table with candles surrounding it, turning it into a more romantic object than his actual sex partners. Rather than his porn-watching occurring in the absence of sex, he follows up sexual encounters with porn, which he finds superior to the “real thing”. Needless to say, the film is pretty hard on watching pornography ( porn-I mean pun unintended ).
The film is critical of not only porn, but media as a whole. The opening scene shows an intense, “ hypercut ”, mishmash of cartoons ( primarily ” Red Hot Riding Hood ” ) , music videos ( primarily Sisqo’s “ Thong Song ” ), and pornography. This segways into Jon’s commentary on sex and his love of porn, communicating the film’s primary “antagonist”. As Jon himself alludes to, part of his porn routine isn’t just watching porn, it’s watching anything that can gratify him. American media IS porn. And that doesn’t just mean rappers sliding credit cards through strippers’ asses in music videos ( yes, that really happened ). It means sports that allow Jon’s father a reprieve from the drudgery of family meals. It means social platforms that allow Jon’s sister a reprieve from interacting at all. It means romantic comedies that-wait a minute, this film IS a romantic comedy!
Yes, the film focuses it’s critical eye own genre. During a scene at a movie theater, we see a character view a romantic film in the same way Jon views his porn: through a intense mishmash of familiar scenes that seem to have an orgasmic effect on the viewer. The film presents the American romance genre as being vapid and indulgent ( like porn ). The cinematography supports this through Michael Bay style focus on the act of sex itself. Sex scenes are quick and given a “stylish” blue tint. The always have an angle that emphasizes the visceral nature of sex rather than anything intimate. Scarlett Johansson’s hotness also serves the porn nature of the film-it gives a great excuse for several longing shots of her body in tight, revealing outfits. Y’know, for plot reasons.
The beauty of this concept is that it allows for the film to cater to the demographic it pokes fun at (at least initially). College bros and working class joes will eat up the film’s raunchy comedy. The film’s sexual humor is pretty immediate without much innuendo, as reflective of the lowbrow nature of the protagonist. Jon himself is a lovable lech who manages to stay relatable. In addition, dat Scarlett Johansson. If taken as just a sex comedy, it works fairly well. If taken as a satire, it still works well, but has many issues.
I’m 700 words into a review and I haven’t touched upon the Armani Exchange wearing elephant in the room: is this a film about guidos? In a word: no. Let me elaborate through comparison: in 1977 a seminal American film debuted which centered on a young Italian in his late teens with no sense of the future. He engages in mindless debauchery with his friends while hitting up the most popular night spots with a steady supply of drugs and sex. It serves as a deconstruction of popular youth culture by painting it as often destructive and hollow ( One of the main characters commits suicide because he got his girl pregnant ). What’s the name of this film?
That’s right, “ that film about John Travolta dancing “ is actually a harsh criticism of the very culture it seems to glamorize. The characters of the film are all working class white kids in the 70’s, so of course their socializing is going to reflect that demographic (hence the disco). However, one could transpose that narrative into any vapid youth culture of the moment like say, 90’s gangsta rap. But unfortunately, since most people take only a glance at any film, it became a film about disco culture instead of commentary on that generation of youth. Don Jon has already suffered similar pigeonholing; the Italian American One Voice Coalition has commented that Don Jon is another work painting Italian American culture in a negative light. Because lord knows Jersey Shore hasn’t already done that.
While Don Jon is clearly drawing from “ guido ” culture ( hairstyle, excessive exercise, etc ), to dismiss it as only that is incorrect. Not only is Jon portrayed and written humanely by Levitt, most of the film’s critical eye seems to be more towards the way he interacts with culture and not so much his culture itself. Like Saturday Night Fever, Jon is swept up in the culture of the day, in his case; Jersey Shore. His mannerisms, family, and friends all manage to get enough nuance to save the character from being a negative caricature. What is “wrong” with Jon is the shallow routine in which these elements are contained. The majority of the film is taken up by Jon going through the same events over and over: masturbation-gym-road rage-church-family dinner-club-dance-sex-masturbation. It’s the ” Gym-Tan-Laundry ” lifestyle taken too far. He does all these things without much consideration for why he’s doing them or if he should modify them somewhat. This lends to the overall vapid nature of his life.
If I had to say what aspect of the film hurts Don Jon the most, it’s the fact that its concept might be too daring for its methods. This is a romantic comedy that is deconstructive of both mainstream media and romance. That’s like being an anti-semitic rabbi. Friction occurs when the film’s novel narrative goals are carried by fairly stock devices. For example, Johansson’s character and relationship with Jon becomes a bit less compelling once I “ got ” what the film’s major thematic conflict was. Rather than being interested in her character, she became all to familiar. There were still laughs and some nice acting moments, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where things are heading. In addition, it’s obvious Levitt didn’t really trust in the film’s legibility, and thus we have a few scenes verbally expositing the film’s themes, a big no-no in visual media. A character almost literally points to the “media is pornography” argument by the end of the second act, when it had already been quite overt. Finally, we can see the “ Hollywood ” influence in its ending, which could be viewed as a bit hypocritical given the film’s major themes. As Levitt’s first film effort, I can imagine that his ambitions outstripped what could be done in a marketable film. Don Jon has few surprises beyond the first act, and I remember going through the 2nd act and part of the 3rd knowing what to expect.
All in all, despite a few issues, I enjoyed Don Jon thoroughly. As a first film effort, it’s quite good. Watch it if you like sex jokes, are aware and skeptical of romantic comedy, and want to support original ideas. Don’t watch if you’re a bit prudish or are in a bad relationship (this will make you question some shit).
For more thoughts on Romance: