DON JON has an perfectly compelling premise: a pair of characters attempt to start a relationship, both of whom have been shaped by the conflicting media they’ve consumed. One is a machismo archetype, addicted to pornography (Jon, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt); the other is the ideal woman (Barbara, Scarlett Johansson), who expects her man to “be a man” – which means doing everything she asks of him. Anything less would be to spit in the face of romanticism, to fail to meet the bar that her idealized dreams (fuelled by Anne Hathaway-Channing Tatum Hollywood blockbusters) have jammed into her head. Add it up, and you’ve got the makings of a compelling dramedy. So why doesn’t the film work better?
As child-actor-turned-Hollywood-superstar Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a writer / director, DON JON shows promise. Ultimately, however, he also has some room to improve and mature behind the camera. His premise is compelling, but it’s undercut by heavy-handedness, unnecessary hyper-stylization and an overall need to drive home a message. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film; it’s quite funny, well-acted and has some really great moments. But its flaws are harmful to the overall product and reveal that maybe Gordon-Levitt isn’t quite there yet as a storyteller.
Many of the parallels between Jon’s addiction and Barbara’s love of cheesy movies are terrific. Her beliefs about romance are as warped and ill-conceived as his are, and Gordon-Levitt does a great job laying the groundwork between them: romance semiotics bleed off the screen and into Jon and Barbara’s relationship, from the grand musical cues when they kiss to the way he changes everything about himself “for her”. But when the subtext of that parallel becomes straight text, it also becomes less interesting. If Jon recognizes these parallels but she doesn’t, even when she’s called out on them, it makes both characters less interesting – Barbara because she comes across as a stubborn bitch (admittedly, intentionally so), and Jon because his realization garners her no pity in his eyes. Had his revelation been a more last-minute realization, it might have better impacted their final moments together.
Also troublesome is the dynamic between Jon and Esther (Julianne Moore), which feels unearned. Worse still, it evolves into something which had stronger emotional potential for the climax than was actually depicted on screen. Though the place that their relationship winds up rings completely true from a human perspective and serves Jon’s story well, it doesn’t really seem to deserve to get there. It also ends in a very bizarre place – somewhere neither here or there. Jon acknowledges his progress, but also acknowledges the fleetingness of it all; something which is fine in of itself, had the story taken the time to delve into what that conflict means to him as a person. But it doesn’t. It seems to want to have it both ways, so neither really works.
Even more bizarrely, the film totally wastes Brie Larson, who utters a single line of dialogue in the entire film. Granted, it is a pointed, meaningful line on which the entire final act hinges, but it’s still something that could have been handled by just about anybody. The rest of the cast is awesome (especially Tony Danza as Jon’s father), and everybody gets a chance at a laugh; it just would have been nice to see a bit more done with the talented Larson.
But overall, the film has a lot of good going for it. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, it’s sexy and clever, and Gordon-Levitt proves that he can do a good job behind the camera if only he can polish up his screenwriting a bit first.