Take a look at this. That is a video of a Marky Mark song, featuring former boxer Micky Ward. Fun fact: One of them went on to play the other in a movie.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that song was performed by the same guy who played the lead role in The Fighter, a film that won two Oscars out of seven nominations. As I type this, there is an entire generation of people who could not connect Mark Wahlberg — the A-list actor who’s worked on some of the last few years’ biggest movies — to Marky Mark, the guy responsible for such prime slices of ’90s cheese as the one linked to above. Don’t get me wrong, I remember so many people joking about him as “Marky Mark” (not that I knew what those jokes meant, I was only four years old when “Good Vibrations” hit), but it seems like a very long time since I’ve heard anyone joking like that.
In a way, this career trajectory resembles that of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. For years, JGL was just that kid from “3rd Rock from the Sun,” or maybe Angels in the Outfield. In any case, it seemed like the guy was defined by a couple of goofy roles that he took back in the ’90s. But then, somewhere between (500) Days of Summer and Inception, people started taking the guy seriously. The guy used to be a half-forgotten former child star, but now he’s a bona fide talent who rose to incredible heights with remarkable speed.
So why do I bring the two of them up? Well, for one thing, the two of them went from pop culture punchlines to world-class talents in very little time, and that deserves some respect. For another thing, “Good Vibrations” just happens to have a prominent place in Don Jon, the writing/directing debut of JGL, who also produced the film through his HitRECord shingle.
The film is being sold to the public as a porn addiction dramedy, and that is certainly a huge part of the movie. But if you think that’s the entire movie, then you clearly didn’t pay very close attention to the trailer. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought the trailer made it perfectly clear that the film would be comparing porn and romantic films as means of escapist fantasy. And yeah, that’s exactly what we got.
Let’s take it from the top: JGL stars as Jon Martello Jr., known to his friends as “Don Jon” for his skills at picking up women. Yet Jon still prefers internet porn to actual sex. Basically, Jon has made it his mission in life to find a woman who gives porn-quality sex, completely oblivious to the idea that porn is entirely fake. With this in mind, he decides to try something new and start going out with a girl for longer than a one-night stand.
Enter Barbara Sugarman, played by Scarlett Johansson. Jon persuades her to start dating, but it turns out that she loves Hollywood romances just as much as Jon loves porno. The two of them absolutely hate the others’ choice of entertainment, but they grin and bear it so that Barbara can keep getting treated like a princess and Jon can keep getting laid.
Put simply, Jon wants to live out a porno while Barbara wants to live out a romantic drama. One of them is focused on the one-night stand while the other one wants to live happily ever after. Though if you think about it, isn’t a money shot quite similar to the phrase “happily ever after?” When you get right down to it, they’re both quick and lazy ways to tell the audience “The story’s over, the characters all went home happy, you make up the rest.” But I digress.
The point is that both of these characters are entirely shallow and selfish. They’re trying to shape each other into their own perfect ideal, chasing incompatible dreams that are both completely unattainable. As such, their relationship is patently false from the word go. That said, the film seems quite biased in favor of Jon. Not because of his porn addiction, but because Jon quite clearly gets the short end of this relationship. Jon gives up absolutely everything for Barbara, reshaping his life around her every whim, while she sacrifices precisely nothing in return. Then again, we are talking about Scarlett freaking Johansson. Of course Jon willingly does anything he can for a night in bed with her because that’s exactly what most guys would do.
The film also explores the angle of “impossibly fantastic romance” through more inventive means. For example, when we first meet Barbara at a nightclub, there’s this big bright spotlight on her while the rest of the club is entirely dark. It’s like the film is specifically singling her out, making her look all angelic and such. There are also times when the film’s score will get all dramatic and tearjerking, amplifying a particular romantic moment to a comical degree.
Conversely, there are several times when the film will take on a more “cinema verite” approach. The lighting will get darker, the cinematography will switch to a handheld camera, and all pretense gets thrown out the window. It’s like the more “realistic” scenes were specially designed to comment on and attack the more “fantastic” scenes of Don and Barbara and their bullshit fairy tale romance. It’s quite clever, really.
Also, it bears mentioning that Julianne Moore’s scenes are almost entirely of the “cinema verite” variety. I don’t dare spoil much about Esther, save that she’s an older woman with her heart on her sleeve who’s actually been through love and loss. She’s a completely selfless woman with real-world experience in authentic relationships, which makes her the complete opposite of our two lead characters. This makes her the moral center of the movie.
As long as I’m talking about the film on a technical level, it bears mentioning that this movie is overflowing with close-up shots. Characters staring directly into the camera, with their heads filling up the entire frame. That’s normally a pet peeve of mine in films, but I can let this particular case slide. After all, the entire point is to show the emotions of the characters at that particular time, and close-up shots were made for that. It also helps that the close-up shots are usually accompanied by Jon’s voice-over, further elaborating on the characters’ thoughts with a bit of snark to keep things rolling.
The editing, however, is less than perfect. I get what the film was going for with its strobing quick-cuts, but it was more distracting and obnoxious than anything else. Hell, the opening credits were so annoying that this film almost jumped the shark before it had even started.
But let’s get back to our lead cast. It should go without saying that Johansson does a fantastic job playing a gorgeous self-important woman, and Moore is a great actress as always. But what about our main star? Well, I’ll grant that it was interesting to see Jon go about his alarmingly stringent daily routine. Oftentimes, his regular day is peppered with clever touches. A great example comes when we see Jon at the gym, keeping count of his reps by saying all the Lord’s Prayers and Hail Marys assigned to him during confession earlier in the week. Yeah, the goes to confession every week. You can imagine what that’s like.
However, this character would be essentially nothing if JGL wasn’t playing him. This character needed a tremendous amount of youth and charisma, or Jon would have fallen totally flat and brought the whole movie down with him. To wit: The guy repeatedly says “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” and all the other characters have to react like it’s the smoothest thing any guy could say. That’s a hugely difficult task (seriously, what woman wants to be called “a thing?”), but damned if JGL doesn’t sell it.
I should also mention that JGL clearly has some serious balls. Looking at this movie, I know he pushed right up to the limits of what an R rating would allow, and I’ve no doubt that he would’ve made an NC-17 film if he thought he could get away with it.
To put it simply, this isn’t a bad movie. Not at all. It is, in fact, a good movie. Yet as I left the theater, I had this nagging feeling that it wasn’t a “great” movie. It was better than “adequate,” and not quite “very good,” but simply “good.” Something felt off about this movie, and I’m not sure I could ever put my finger on precisely what. But I can take a few guesses.
For one thing, Jon’s family was completely worthless. I was especially disappointed with Jon’s sister, who spends the entire film staring at her cell phone, and she’s played by Brie Larson. This broke my heart. I just saw Larson bring the whole fucking house down in Short Term 12, and now I’m seeing her play a character who says and does precisely nothing? Bullshit! Yes, Larson does get two or three lines by the end of the film, and her character hits the nail right on the head with those lines, but that isn’t enough to redeem this waste of an underrated and highly talented actor.
As for Jon’s parents… oh my god. His mother (Angela, played by Glenne Headly) is a shrill and annoying harpy who can’t talk or apparently think about anything except for getting grandkids. His father (Jon Sr., played by Tony Danza, of all people) is a neanderthal who will take the flimsiest excuse to start a shouting match. I can’t begin to tell you how much I loathed every second I spent with these characters.
Come to think of it, Angela is trying to force her own agenda on her kids, concerned only with her own happiness no matter how many times she claims otherwise. Meanwhile, Jon Sr. will do whatever he wants and yells at anyone who contradicts him in any way. In their own ways, these two are every bit as selfish and delusional as Jon Jr. and Barbara are. Yet the Jon/Barbara relationship is used as a way of exploring real-life love and its twisted depictions in escapist fantasy. By comparison, I’m pretty sure that Jon Sr. and Angela are assholes purely for the sake of it. Either that or to provide some unnecessary comic relief.
That brings me to another point: The film worked much better as a character drama than as a comedy. I can’t point to any particular moment in this film and say “that made me laugh.” In fact, I can’t think of any point in the film that took me completely by surprise. The film seemed quite predictable when it got going, really.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is in how it takes apart porn films and romance movies as patently fake, with its two-dimensional characters, rampant cliches, and recycled plotlines. Yet in the attempt at satirizing these trends, I worry that the film might have fallen into the trap of becoming what it beheld. It doesn’t quite go that far, but it does come dangerously close in some spots. Maybe the storyline would have been better served with a more ambiguous ending, is all I’m saying.
Still, maybe the movie’s greatest failing was in falling short of its own sky-high expectations. The film was given a top-tier cast, hyped up as the writing/directing debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and placed right at the start of awards season a week before goddamned Gravity. I don’t think the film was ever made or intended to deliver on that kind of hype. It’s only a microbudget movie that just happened to be made by some famous people, much like Prince Avalanche or The Way, Way Back were. And taken on those standards, I’d say it’s a damn fine start for a debut filmmaker.
Don Jon is certainly a good film, if only because of how it addresses our preconceived and media-influenced notions of love in a very unique and interesting way. If nothing else — as a writer, director, producer, and an actor — JGL proves that he is not remotely afraid of taking risks, and I respect that completely. Granted, his risks don’t all work out, but this is still quite a solid first effort.
I do recommend seeing the movie, just don’t go in expecting a masterpiece.
For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.