By Jessica Delfanti | September 19, 2013
Writer: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Brie Larson, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly
When (500) Days of Summer was released in 2009, it helped catapult the much appreciated Joseph Gordon-Levitt to star status. But the actor had some mixed thoughts about the overwhelming praise for his character in the film. In an interview with Playboy, he stated, “The (500) Days Of Summer attitude of ‘He wants you so bad’ seems attractive to some women and men, especially younger ones. But I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is.” This concept of loving an idea, and the juxtaposition between expectations and reality, is the central focus for his marvelous new film, Don Jon.
Gordon-Levitt helms Don Jon as its writer, director, and star, and he carries it perfectly. He plays Jon, a porn addict that, discovering that one night stands never live up to on-screen action, tries his hand at a relationship with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). Both struggle to make things work when they realize their expectations, fueled by gender-targeted media, are far from accurate.
The film is particularly interesting because it plays off the actual expectations of moviegoers. I suspect the experience would be different per an audience member’s gender; it’s deliciously manipulative. It plays off the rom-com formula, setting up a scenario where a handsome but wayward man changes for the better at the behest of the “right” woman, then takes a sudden, unique turn. The right woman doesn’t seem so “right,” and the better man doesn’t seem much “better,” but one thing is for certain: they’re not so interested in each other, but rather in projecting the ideas of what they want onto each other.
The result is a film that feels very intelligent, but also supremely sad. With a thesis like this, it’s a wonder that anyone seems happy in the film. Even as Jon befriends the melancholy wisp Esther (Julianne Moore), and begins to come into himself and consider things from a new perspective, the film is laden with a profound, echoey sadness that leaves you feeling almost personally wounded.
That isn’t to dismiss the important point it makes, however. It would have been easy, doubly so for a man like Gordon-Levitt, to make this film in a very different way. He could have portrayed Jon as a likable if naive boy who believes that porn is reality and then finds himself disappointed in reality. His Jon could have been more of an everyman, more of a victim of media and social conditioning, more of a child. Instead, he sets up a character that is at times charming but more frequently frustrating, delusional, and selfish. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t even try to trim his character in attractive clothing, affect, or sexuality: his Jon is grotesquely obsessed with his appearance, wears sweats for the majority of the film, and speaks in a Jersey accent. However, in spite of the best attempts to make himself unlikable, Gordon-Levitt carries that special kind of charisma that makes it nearly impossible, and by the end of the film you are willing to forgive him anything, no matter how many too-tight v-neck sweaters he wears.
On the contrary, Johansson’s character has an opposite trajectory. At the beginning of the film, she is fresh but fussy in the cliche rom-com way: she’s the only girl that tells Jon “no.” For her part, Johansson is almost unrecognizable in her Jersey mode, nailing the accent perfectly, constantly chewing gum, flashing long nails, and ending each sentence with a perfect unspoken question mark. Gordon-Levitt said in an AMA on Reddit that he selected Johansson for the role because she “is an extremely smart person, and a very talented artist. And yet most of what gets talked about is her looks.” Don Jon illustrates this perfectly, putting the beauty in Jon’s tracks and then slowly showing the process of disillusionment as he goes beyond her looks and discovers that she is a real person.
The only real problem with the film is its follow through on the concepts. While the film shows Jon’s process of education and seems to excuse him from his actions, Johansson’s Barbara is demonized, and even negatively called out by female characters in the cast. It would be interesting to see the same film from the perspective of the woman, as one can imagine that it would tell a very different story. The difficulty, then, is determining whether this demonization of the woman because of her expectations is meant to be a reflection of Jon’s own thoughts and feelings, or a problem with Gordon-Levitt’s own feelings and script.
Another thing worth noting is that, with all of Gordon-Levitt’s talk about expectations and reality, he participates in a trope that is a perpetrator of media expectations of women: the manic pixie dreamgirl. Functionally, a manic pixie dreamgirl tends to be a character that comes into a man’s life and exists solely for the purpose of teaching him about himself and helping him come into himself. While one might have expected Johansson’s character to be performing this role, instead we have the admittedly surprising figure of Moore’s Esther, but the functionality is the same. Again, it is up to us to wonder: is it an intentional move to make viewers wonder about Jon and how he reacts to women, or is it an error from Gordon-Levitt?
Gordon-Levitt has spoken frequently about his own feminist ideals, and so I am eager to think that those issues are intended to leave us discussing just how much Jon has changed. Regardless, if Gordon-Levitt has us talking about these issues at all, his film is a success. We can only hope this is the first of many.