“You like movies?” – Don Jon Review

Don Jon 3

These days, it’s becoming increasingly unusual to see a movie trailer that leaves you with any doubts as to the nature of the film it’s trailing. As often as not, you’ll get a sense of pretty much the whole story from that two-minute snapshot, but not so with Don Jon‘s, at the end of which, viewers are still left wondering whether its approach to the sexist culture it takes as its subject will be ironic or simply more of the same thinly disguised collusion to which, God knows, we’ve grown accustomed. What it definitely does not prepare them for is Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s spectacularly astute satire, not only of pornography, but of all aspects of our materialistic, consumerist world and the emotional emptiness it fosters.

This isn’t to say that the film repaints that also too-familiar portrait of a dim, depressing world in which the individuality of trapped and powerless pawns is inevitably sacrificed to the will of the powers that be. Rather, this is an overwhelmingly optimistic story which insists that change is possible, as well as an uproariously funny one, which recognises both the sadness and the silliness of our lives. What one takes away most from this movie is a sense of Gordon-Levitt’s inexhaustible compassion for the ordinary people whom he sees as the victims of a system determined to put us all in boxes. To put it simply, if there’s ever been a film to make you come away grinning and bathed in a warm, fuzzy glow, it’s this one.

donjon600__spanOur main character, Jon “Don Jon” Martello (Gordon-Levitt), starts out as a classic, beefed-up Hollywood antihero who works hard, plays hard and gets any girl he wants. He comes from a standard, one-of-each family, with a sport-loving, tough-talking, chauvinist father (Tony Danza), a submissive, grandchild-craving, housewife mother (Glenne Headly), and a surly, silent, ever-texting teenage sister (Brie Larson), all so extreme in their conventionality that they actually strike your typical viewer as unusual. Like any good Catholic boy, Jon goes to church and confesses his sins, only to go out, get drunk, get laid and commit them all again. So far, so mundane, yet this is precisely the point: even at this early stage of the film, Gordon-Levitt is calling out the repetitive nature of his protagonist’s life (body-pad-ride-family-church-boys-girls-porn), which is so predictable that we can hardly blame him for seeking some kind of escape.

The problem, of course, is that what Jon sees as his release is in truth just another trap which keeps him from finding real meaning in his life. The online porn videos that provide him with the kick that real sex can’t leaves him just as restless and dissatisfied as ever, waiting impatiently for his next fix.

Enter Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), Jon’s female counterpart. Barbara is another Hollywood stereotype: beautiful, easily flattered by Jon’s cheesy, clichéd pick-up lines and determined to bag herself a macho man who’ll do anything for her, just like the men in the same-old, same-old rom-coms she watches. In Jon’s own terms, Barbara is 10/10 or “a dime”, the “most beautiful thing [he’s] ever seen” (emphasis here on “thing” and the monetary terms in which the guys conceive of their ideal women). Unlike most of his catches, however, Barbara refuses to be just another one-night stand, making him agree to a long list of demands before she finally gives herself up to him. Like your classic femme fatale, then, Barbara uses her sexuality as a kind of bargaining chip, while expecting the man she hopes to marry to follow a kind of “self-improvement” programme, much like those becoming increasingly popular in the business world today.

don-jon-7Right down to their exaggerated accents, these characters take their every cue from films and the media, pornographic or otherwise. Cleverly, Gordon-Levitt ties together the harmful effects of both Barbara’s blockbusters and Jon’s seedy pornos, showing how real people attempt to live up to the unrealistic standards they set. This is emphasised by the way the film is shot, with repetitive, sped-up montages and films within films. In addition, almost all of the characters spend a seemingly inordinate (though now perhaps quite usual) amount of time staring at screens, whether it’s TVs, cinema screens, computers, mirrors, mobile phones or even the grilles between confessional boxes. At times, these screens take the position of the film screen the audience watches, so we see the characters staring down at us as if to point out our own part in their fantasy worlds.

Things only begin to change when Jon agrees to attend an evening class in some kind of business course, after Barbara insists that he must get himself a better paid job, presumably to enable him to support her and the conventional family she has been taught to crave. There, he befriends Esther (Julianne Moore), a quirky, older woman who helps him to learn that the only real escape from the daily grind is through real, honest connection with another human being.

Performances are excellent all round, and script and direction are well above and beyond what you’d expect of a far more seasoned writer/director, with sparkling wit, pathos and a real stylistic flair. What most makes this film, however, is how it steers clear of the obvious pitfalls of lecturing its audience or only preaching to the converted. By laying the comedy on thick and mimicking the films it criticises, its evident hope of reaching a wider audience, making them think, and perhaps even changing a few minds, does not seem entirely unfounded. Here’s hoping that its message isn’t lost on too many people.

One fair criticism might be that redemption is not offered to all characters evenly, with some never breaking free of their delusions. Nevertheless, Don Jon is, ultimately, a much-needed antidote to a growing cultural malaise, stressing the importance of real connection in a world that paradoxically distances and disconnects, even as it offers us never-ending streams of communication. It challenges the easy answers provided by film, TV, advertising, the internet and even religion, and it reminds us that, despite all the media’s best efforts, real happiness is something that cannot be commodified or made to fit a formula.

Don Jon opens in UK cinemas on Friday 15th November. Check out the official trailer below to see more.

Copyright © 2013 MCM BUZZ – Movies, TV, Comics, Gaming, Anime, Cosplay News & Reviews