Don Jon is one of those projects that by all reasonable expectations should be a steaming pile of refuse, or at the very least the epitome of mediocrity. It’s written and directed by a young actor who also happens to star in the titular role of, essentially, a lower class pick-up artist from New Jersey. The majority of its humor involves sex, and it’s basically the story of how he came to know true love. Sounds terrible, right? Well, it isn’t. It’s actually quite good.
Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a simple man with simple tastes. He likes taking care of his car, his body, his apartment, and never fails to spend dinner with his family and Sunday mornings in church. And every night, he hits the club with his friends, argues with them about which lady is a “dime” (on a scale of one to ten), and leaves in a taxicab with a random girl he picked up that night. And yet, despite his undisputed talent at getting laid, nothing compares to the pure bliss he experiences watching porn –– which he does a lot. Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) is a simple girl with simple tastes. All she wants in life is a man who can be her very own Prince Charming, like all the wonderful leading men in the romance movies she’s obsessed with. Naturally, these two get involved, and struggle to reconcile their expectations with the reality of relationships.
The first thing that really jumps out is just how funny this movie is. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is no Louis C.K., but he certainly demonstrates a fantastic talent for comedic timing –– and it’s not just in his performance. The film moves with a confident, popping pace that makes you laugh with carefully timed cheeky edits. The writing flows with a genuine ease, occupying that nebulous territory right on the border of naturalistic realism and exaggerated absurdity. There’s a stylistic rhythm and structure that’s reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s flair, if Aronofsky made lighthearted romps.
The other thing that really grabs your attention is that the movie is a scathing criticism of the very genre to which it belongs without being a parody, which…well, frankly, you don’t often see. The movie bases its narrative and its humor on the notion that gendered media (i.e., mainstream porn for men and romantic movies for women) creates hazardously unrealistic expectations regarding sexuality and intimacy, perhaps particularly for people who lead simple, uncomplicated, and even sheltered lives. Jon’s family exemplifies this, with a father who cares about sports and gorgeous women and a mother who just wants to see her son “happy” –– meaning married to a good girl. Neither one of them understands who their son is, nor do they understand who Barbara is. The father sees a girl who’s phenomenally beautiful and approves of her exclusively because of that, and the mother sees a nice, polite girl, which is enough to make her exclaim, “Oh, I love her!”
With the exception of one poignant scene, all the sex is played for laughs. And there’s a lot of sex –– one night stands, masturbation, pornography. The subject matter is incredibly crude, and the redemptive epiphany in the third act is certainly borderline sentimental (and predictable), but it’s hard to find fault with the movie. Maybe your moral compass won’t stand for this sort of thing, or maybe you take issue with the portrayal of New Jersey folk (or Catholics). But otherwise, this movie is simply loads of fun. Ironically enough, if you’re looking for a good date movie, Don Jon wouldn’t be a bad choice. If you’re worried about finding the right thing to say or living up to your date’s expectations, by the time the credits roll you’ll both probably be a lot more relaxed and willing to be more honest with each other. With luck, the last thing on your minds as you take your seats in the Italian restaurant around the block from the theater is whether the person next to you is a dime or a Prince Charming.