Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Don Jon (2013) – Review

Review: Don Jon is a raunchy, funny, and at times sweet romantic comedy, all while addressing the problems facing modern relationships. The film is about Jon, a New Jersey native who finds more of a connection with the women in porn than he does with real women he brings home. Hoping to find more meaning in life, Jon decided to engage in an actual relationship instead of just meaningless sex. During the course of this relationship, Jon begins to change learning something deep and meaningful about himself.

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also stars in the film, makes his writing/directing feature debut with Don Jon. And like many first-time young directors, he brings a pop-art style to the film that takes bits and pieces of other filmmakers’ work (or cool aesthetic moments from other films) and amalgamates them into a scattered filmmaking style where aesthetic decisions are made chiefly because they look cool instead of serving the narrative. Here, the editing and camera placement is very flashy compared to the standard Hollywood-style most films are made with, and it is a bit more ambitious than what can be called ‘indie style’. It plays a role in the comedic and emotional impact of the film directly engaging the audience. But, it is a dangerous game. If the viewer does not like the style, which to some extent feels amateurish (a scrambling of other directors’ ideas projected onto this film), then the message that this film purports will be lost as the style will take all the attention. The style is cool and fun (and maybe even hip), but it also can be distracting, as it gets in the way of the film really creating a significant connection with the audience. However, Gordon-Levitt does seem to find a balance between style and narrative. As the film progresses, the performances seem to take over focus (much to the benefit of the film as a whole).

What Gordon-Levitt does that is very interesting is his complete commitment to the repetitive visual images than make up Jon’s life. The audience is constantly shown the same routine over and over, playing into the monotonous and seemingly unfulfilling life that Jon leads. His routine seems to be a distraction from his emotions, allowing him to just cruise through life without deeper meaning, which also plays into why he finds something in porn more so than empty sex. His imagination is able to fill in the emotional gaps and desires that one-night stands can never hope to fulfill. Thus, as Jon starts to actually find meaning in his life, the routine begins to fade away and the audience is easily able to pick up on the change because the visual images of the routine are so ingrained that any deviation is immediately noticed – and even more so: impactful.

Gordon-Levitt does this with his characters too, especially Jon’s family. They are presented in very much the same manner each time the audience sees them. Once Jon undergoes his change, his family too starts to have moments that break their typical character and visual routines as well. This is a very smart way to interact with an audience, as again the changes are very perceptible once the routine is broken and the audience perks up and feels more engaged in the narrative.

The narrative itself is nothing new. Jon is basically the epitome of ‘male’. He is handsome, works out, has a muscle car, and has lots of success with many women. But Gordon-Levitt takes this character, which superficially is desirable to many, and subverts him, showcasing just how unhappy and pointless his life really is in that he leads a life without meaning. His addiction to porn is in some ways just a shock-value grab for the audience. It is the hook to reel in the viewer initially, but it is not really the main focus of the narrative: that of a man who finally allows himself to be vulnerable and not be so ‘male’, which is fairly tried-and-true in romantic comedies.

But, then again, the porn addiction is an interesting aspect as well. Don Jon can be taken as a much lighter version of Shame (which deals with sex addiction). Porn can be substituted for anything that allows one to escape the reality of life, pushing down and hiding the pain or absence of meaning. In Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt asks his audience to leave the film ready to escape the dreariness and sameness of their own lives and embrace change, new things, and above all real emotions and experiences that will bring light to their souls, as that is where true happiness lies.

At its core, Don Jon is a deconstruction of the modern romantic comedy. Jon’s relationship with Barbara (to some degree) resembles the superficial coupling of two people in rom-coms: two beautiful people who have some obstacles but eventually come together and everything is happilyeverafter. But, audiences never see what happens after the couple comes together, as that is usually the end of most rom-coms. Here, Jon and Barbara find that they really both do not understand how to be in a relationship and are certainly not right for each other. For Jon, this is another step in his growth and for Gordon-Levitt it is a way to take a shot at the fantasy that is the romantic comedy genre.

Overall, the grand narrative ambitions for the film are quite extensive for a new filmmaker and Gordon-Levitt executes his premise with skill. That said, on top of the style being a bit distracting the greater narrative structural problem that Gordon-Levitt faces is that his film drags noticeably in the second half. Jon has sort of a soul-searching episode, which while narratively necessary does somewhat derail the forward momentum of the pacing. The pop-art style of the editing has a brisk pace that is also very vibrant for most of the film, and then suddenly the tone is softer and editing becomes much slower, losing the audience. A lot of the comedy also is lost during this shift. The film begins to feel far less entertaining during this portion, as the tone previously dictated that the film was mainly a comedy thus setting an expectation for the audience. When the tone switches to a much more dramatic one, this compounds the effect of the slower pacing, which in turn leaves the audience feeling bored as they wait for the comedy to return.

As it is, Don Jon is a fun and interesting look at modern relationships and addiction. The performances and ambitiousness of its narrative are endearing, but the film’s pacing issues and inelegant style do hold it back. Fans of the romantic comedy genre may find the film a nice change of pace however, as it takes many of the genre’s troupes and turns them on their head.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Joseph Gordon-Levitt has delivered a good debut feature film with Don Jon. The pop-art style he employs is something very common among new younger filmmakers (as I said above) and in all likeliness he will find his own style as he makes more films. What is more exciting about him as a filmmaker is the thoughtfulness of his narrative. At face value, it is just about a man looking for ‘real’ love, but underneath the deeper meaning explores many true setbacks of modern life (i.e. living in a monotonous bubble of routine) while also exposing the failures of the romantic comedy as a genre (something The Five-Year Engagement also does well). I look forward to his future filmmaking endeavors.

Composer Nathan Johnson’s score seems to be lost for most of the film, hidden behind the fun soundtrack and constant splattering of imagery (porn and other pop-culture references). However, when the narrative starts to become more character driven and the performances begin to take primary focus away from the aesthetic style of the film, the score starts to play a bigger role reinforcing the dramatic beats of the film. Thomas Kloss’s cinematography is fairly straightforward. However, the camera placement in the film is often intriguing as it is often different than where the camera would typically be placed in most films. Meghan C. Rogers’s production design is maybe the most compelling of the major artistic collaborations. Her work presents a seemingly very sterile world for Jon to inhabit, which plays wonderfully into his routine-dictated life.

The film at first seems to by style driven, but Gordon-Levitt realizes that at its heart this is a character driven film and thus shifts focus to the performances during the second act. Jeremy Luke and Rob Brown are very funny in small supporting roles, while Glenne Headly and Brie Larson (who plays this film’s Silent Bob) add a lot without much screen time. Larson especially has some great stuff. Tony Danza is a scene-stealer. He has so much energy that the audience cannot help but be drawn to him. Julianne Moore is good as Jon’s down-to-Earth friend Esther who plays as a great juxtaposition to Barbara. Scarlett Johansson is fantastic as Barbara, who she plays as a very Housewives of New Jersey/Jersey Shore woman. She is stunning yes, but also very controlling and shallow. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does not immediately strike one as a typical Jersey meat-head, which is basically the role he is playing. But, there is more to Jon than just the stereotypes. He actually craves more from life, which is why he tries to change his life. Gordon-Levitt does a good job bringing the character’s emotional journey to life.

Summary & score: Don Jon has a lot to offer. It is thought-provoking, while still being funny and dramatically engaging. It is a fine directorial debut for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 7/10

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