Joseph Gordon Lovett (JGL) makes his writing and directorial debut with the romantic comedy Don Jon. If you’re thinking: why would a Hollywood veteran bother making a sappy, clichéd, trope-filled travesty of a genre film, be prepared to have your misconceptions skewered with the opening frames. JGL makes sure you know his debut is indie in its conception, execution and casting. This is not an emo love story, it’s not an indie film trying to brush up against Hollywood. This is a film that has a powerhouse behind it who can get a first time director’s movie made with big stars that actually has something to say. ‘Safe’ is not a word to use for JGL’s first film. It may have Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza and Julianne Moore as the main characters in the film, but this could be considered anything but mainstream. Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway also get funny cameo rolls, but as the $9 million opening weekend box office attests to, Hollywood does not consider this film a mainstream winner. And thank God for that. There is little evidence of Hollywood interference in a movie containing explicit drug use, in your face sex scenes and a narrative thread dedicated solely to porn.
One watching is not enough to gather all the nuance of what can appear to be a pretty straightforward love story. Boy meets hot girl, they come together, the inevitable betrayal, boy falls in love with the girl he should have in the first place. I admit to cheating a bit. I listened to a NPR interview with JGL about the film and it was enlightening. Being in the Industry for so long he does actually know about film. In the interview he referenced Godard, the New Wave Godfather, as an influence on a film that is not only a romantic comedy, but also a film commenting on romantic comedy films.
Some of the tropes are obvious. The music swells and violins play as Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) walks onto the scene for the first real date. Lights flash as Jon and Barbara take their first kiss. Every emotion is carefully evoked so when Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore) there is a noticeable lack of fanfare. Other moments are much more subtly played. You may not even realize the patterns that Jon has fallen into until you see them consciously broken toward the end of the film. For example: we see Jon continually angry at traffic and drivers, even punching out a guy’s car window. We even see him act in the same manner with Barbara in the car and she chastises him. Only toward the end of the movie to we see Jon genuinely happy enough in his life to be singing to himself in the car. Another fine example is the sequence that shows us Jon walking to the weight room at his gym. We see the same sequence over and over, adding Barbara in there for one of them. They must have shot all of these in sequence for the camera literally doesn’t move from sequence to sequence. Only when Jon’s life starts to change does he suddenly realize there’s a basketball game going on every time he’s at the gym. You’re lulled by seeing the same images over and over, just like Jon has been lulled by his life. The character growth is punctuated by puncturing these sequences JGL has set up.
The Jersey boys Jon hangs out with, Barbara and Jon’s family are all romantic comedy devices. Jon’s mother waxes on about getting grandchildren, Jon’s father is emotionally distant and even abusive, Jon’s sister literally has one line in the film, as she’s texting in every scene she’s in, including those in church. However her one line is brilliant and really marks a turning point for Jon.
Jon eventually falls into a relationship with the imminently unsuitable Esther. It’s she that helps Jon really become a dimensional human being. Kudos to JGL for making Esther at once attractive, it is Julianne Moore after all, and somewhat repulsive at the same time. She’s free in the complete opposite way that Jon isn’t. She’s weird, awkward, she’s an emotional mess. She asks Jon all the questions he doesn’t want to know the answers to. As Jon says, “She looks straight into my eyes. No one else in my life does that.” We do actually feel Jon’s bliss at the end of the movie. JGL uses more movie tropes to let us inhabit the characters – watching them silently move through life together without any background music, or sound. The flickering of Jon and Esther’s faces just before the credits role to show is that Jon really has found someone to connect with.
It’s a film you need to see multiple times and something to get your film dictionary out for. Watch it once for the pleasure of it, once for the film education.
9 our of 10 passionate metanaughts