Sunday, April 19, 2015

Netflix Picks: Don Jon

Posted By on Sun, Apr 19, 2015 at 7:26 AM

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Don't date anyone who quotes Love Story. “Love means never having to say you're sorry” says as much about love as lyrics by Cephalic Carnage. Want a real love story? Try Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's 2013 directorial/writing debut. It's a romantic comedy that cuts through the culturally-imposed crap and gets real about relationships.

Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) is a simple man from New Jersey. He lives and loves his standard Jersey Shore lifestyle, from the workouts to the church to the hookups. His parents, Jon Sr. and Angela (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly), know he'll one day get married and raise a family, just like them. His buddies, Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke) call him Don Jon because he never fails to land a girl who's at least an 8 out of 10. The only thing he likes more than sex is porn, but he's getting a little bored of pulling out his laptop after his date falls asleep.

One night he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a perfect ten, who brushes him off at the club. Frustrated, Jon plays the long game to bed her. It starts with a little Facebook stalking, then lunch and a crappy romance movie, but she asks for major commitments before she'll sleep with him – just as he's playing from the porno playbook, she's playing from her romance flicks. But he goes through with it; after a stimulating dry hump outside of her door, he's convinced she'll give him porno-grade sex. Their friends meet each other, she meets Jon's parents and he goes back to school. He says they're in love. Almost by accident, they're a serious thing. But the sex is as ikea-manual tab-a-into-slot-b as he's used to, and against her wishes, he keeps watching porn.

As they get further into their weird, plastic relationship, Jon and Barbara disagree more and more over little things. She picks on his little habits, shaping him into the abnegating Ken doll she's always wanted. But she ditches him when she finds out he lied about giving up porn, saying he's just like the other men she's dated. Ultimately, Jon bonds with an oddball classmate, Esther (Julianne Moore), whom he's spoken with a few times in passing. Her frank talk about porn and masturbation throws him for a loop. When they hook up at her place, it's the first time Jon experiences real intimacy in the film, physical or emotional. Jon turns a corner and starts deviating from his routine. In the end, he apologizes to Barbara for lying but has no interest in getting back with her – she wants a person who isn't him.

Don Jon is a clever comedy but not the unapproachable, artsy kind of clever. You don't have to be able to define visual symmetry to laugh when Barbara gets the same glazed-over smile in the theater that Jon gets from Alexis Texas. Jon's shallowness is a given, but we're set up to expect Barbara to be the one that changes Jon from a serial masturbator into a genuine, caring person. But Barbara objectifies Jon just as much as she is objectified.

But it takes more than just a drool-worthy physique to make Jon a likable protagonist. Gordon-Levitt's charm shines through, and his internal monologue keeps us in Jon's head. Jon isn't dumb, thank goodness for that, he’s a man of simple pleasures – a creature of habit, aroused by the sound of his laptop turning on – there's no play on his intelligence or lack thereof. Neither Jon nor Barbara are stupid here, they're just shallow – much shallower than they'd like to think.

As far as the acting goes, this movie is a series of strong performances. Gordon-Levitt is always fun to watch, and here is no exception. Johansson's performance is picture perfect, not once acknowledging the absurdity of her character, and major points to Moore for changing the whole dynamic of the movie by playing the only genuine character.

So what if the film isn't an uproarious festival of misunderstandings and conflict? Big comedies are starved of subtleties. By dialing the whole affair back, the weirdness of the characters' supposedly-normal behavior rings that much clearer. It's a show of personalities just big enough to be ridiculous without crossing into caricature or ham-fisted parable. It's a comedy you have to pay attention to – there aren't many over-the-top laughs, with the exception of Jon's explicit internal monologue.

Don Jon is a great little love story and a scathing take on the media that sells love lookalikes. It exists in the strange space between an automatic life and an enriching life. And the absurd characters are a pleasure to watch while still being relatable. If nothing else, Gordon-Levitt talks about sex and porn with a Jersey accent, and that's deeply funny. For a good time, check out Don Jon.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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