Don Jon: Turning Romantic Comedy on its Head

It’s always interesting to me when I find an actor I am familiar with in some measure is involving themselves in the film-making process at other ends, such as writing and directing. As such, I took an interest in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a writer and director in a feature-length film, Don Jon, both for the trailer that suggested a clever, off-beat romantic comedy and a chance to see how an actor I liked fared as a writer and director on top of the star.

Don Jon tells the story of Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, naturally), a young man in New Jersey. Jon lives a life of routine, whether it be his weekly visits with his church, his gym, and his family, his daily maintenance of his apartment and nightly hanging out with his friends Bobby and Danny (Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke, respectively), or his near-constant stream of one-night stands with attractive women he meets clubbing, followed by a lot of time watching porn. While Jon takes immense satisfaction in his routines, particularly in watching porn, his recent restlessness at the start of the film convinces him to shake things up a little. This catapults Jon into a relationship with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), an extremely attractive girl who likes Jon’s charm but is looking for a committed relationship rather than a one-night stand. This change in Jon’s day-to-day life sends him off on a journey through the ups and downs of having a relationship (particularly his new girlfriend’s strenuous objection to pornography) as his new experiences lead him to reflect on his own life and gain some valuable insight about the nuances of love, intimacy, and sex…although not necessarily in ways the viewer might expect.

For the first full-length movie Joseph Gordon-Levitt has written, Don Jon has some very tight writing. Jon’s internal commentary is hilarious from the outset of the movie, and scenes such as the running gag of Jon’s weekly confessions at church provide a lot of good laughs, especially when Jon attempts to get his confessor to explain how they work out penance assignments. Jon’s relationships with his friends, his girlfriend, his family, and Esther (Julianne Moore) a woman he meets when he starts taking night classes at Barbara’s behest, feel realistic, from Jon squirming in the restrictions or changes his relationship imposes on his routine or butting heads with his irascible father (Tony Danza), to Esther’s often-awkward attempts to befriend Jon.  On top of this, the writing impressed me because it is clearly playing with some conventions the viewer has come to expect from romantic comedy plots. Barbara, with her strong focus on romantic movies and high ideals for her relationship with Jon, proves to be an atypical take on the common plotline of the lady-killer falling in love, and the relationship turns the entire romantic comedy upside-down to observe it from an uncommon angle. While Jon is clearly the sort of man who has to change significantly to be happy in a relationship, Don Jon does ask through it’s writing if there are right and wrong reasons to change what you’re doing to be in a relationship, and examines how falling in love and becoming intimate with another person can be two very different things, even though one ought to follow the other. Beneath the clever dialogue and funny situations Jon gets into on his emotional journey, I feel the film raised some interesting points about how people see romance, and ended on a note I found refreshingly realistic.

All in all, I feel Don Jon is a strong debut for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a feature-film writer and a director, and another good performance for him as an actor backed up with a good supporting cast. If you are a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, like somewhat offbeat comedies, and don’t mind a fair amount of sexual humor, I would recommend giving Don Jon a try.

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