Now that the romantic comedy genre has been overdone to the point of cliché, a new wave of work has emerged which attempts to subvert the stereotypes and toy with our expectations, sometimes referred to as anti-rom-coms. Actor turned filmmaker Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a key figure in one of the pioneering movies of this sort when he starred in 500 Days of Summer, and has now had a go himself. ‘Don Jon’ takes a seedy peep into the life of a modern man, Jon Martello Jr, who is obsessed with internet pornography, and who struggles to connect with women emotionally because of this. When he meets his dream girl Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who has a fixation of her own in Hollywood romances, can he put his virtual fantasies to one side in return for a real relationship?
In Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, he certainly wears his influences on his sleeve. The quick cut quirkiness could be taken straight from the mind of Edgar Wright and is used freely and frequently to illustrate and summarise his interests, which consist mainly of masturbation, working out and attending church every Sunday to renounce his weekly sins. This provides a fun opening third, developing the macho man central character that looks like a product of watching too many Robert DeNiro films and the family dinner scenes play up the Italian-American trademarks entertainingly. The father-son rapport is particularly funny, with Tony Danza playing Martello Sr drooling over his son’s glamorous girlfriend. As the plot progresses, things get a little repetitive and when we sadly find ourselves in more familiar territory, the initial creativity is lost. A more humane personality is introduced in Esther (Julianne Moore) to interact with the one-dimensional lothario leading to a crossroads where he must re-evaluate his priorities.
It is a cheekily clever casting choice from Gordon-Levitt in picking Scarlett Johansson as his love interest. Her curves and blonde locks are impressive attributes to his superficial lead who instantly judges potential lovers by their looks scoring them out of ten with his friends. Is this the twisted representation of the modern relationship it presents itself as, or is it truer to life than he thinks? I think his narrative is, in a way, probably a more accurate social commentary than the lovey-dovey Channing Tatum weepies that Barbara is so fond of, but it is an intriguing topic to tackle nonetheless.
Aside from his writing and acting, Gordon-Levitt manages to give a charismatic performance given that his role, for the most part lacks depth, and he gets solid performances from his supporting cast. Brie Larson putting in a near muted turn as Jon’s sister who is glued to her mobile phone in every scene she is in, perhaps in a fun-poking reference to the insignificant hushed females from old Italian-American gangster movies, another nod from the director to his inspirations. ‘Don Jon’ is an ambitious first outing from a filmmaker who has an impressive knack for constructing nice visual set pieces, but lacks an original concept. The indie quirks are enough to amuse for a while, and Johansson is definitely easy on the eye, but both begin to wear thin when the potential isn’t maximised. It marks an exciting sign for things to come from a fresh thinking filmmaker who I believe that one day will create his masterpiece.