As a proud Jersey Boy, I’ve gotten use to seeing how film and television ridicules and mocks my wonderful state. It makes sense that we get made fun of since we’re perhaps most famous for our large population of “Guidos” and what the Jersey Shore lovingly called “Juiceheads”. Jersey almost always gets a bad wrap and, for the most part, it’s because of those groups. This is why I was somewhat skeptical going into Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon, which tells the story of such a “Juicehead”, who, after years of casual pick-ups, falls in love. Upon first glance, I was expecting all the usual shtick: the bad accents, the greased hair, and the stereotypical “bro” lifestyle. If that’s your kind of thing, then don’t worry, you’ll get all that, but also an incredibly human and heartfelt story about finding love and growing up.
The selling point of Don Jon, as displayed by the trailers, is the main character’s fondness for pornography. This is a pretty big element of the film and provides plenty of laughs, but it is used more as a device to explain Jon’s immaturity and narcissistic tendencies when it comes to relationships. This was a great technique, as the filmmakers didn’t try and shove the porn aspect down your throat (Pun completely intended) but rather reminded the audience of where Jon is in his life and how he grows throughout the film.
Pulling off a triple-threat of writing, directing, and starring, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a wonderful job of not bogging down the plot with cliché romance, instead taking an honest approach to sexual idealism and modern relationships. Though his Jersey accent wasn’t top tier, Gordon-Levitt gives a layered performance, effortlessly weaving from hilarious to serious throughout the film. If anything, it reminded me that JGL is a lot more than an action sidekick and is totally capable of churning out some really authentic and original romances (See 500 Days of Summer.). The story is strangely reminiscent of something from Woody Allen or Billy Wilder, in that romance and connection is always something strived for but never fulfilled in quite the way you think it will be. At the same, the script tends to get a bit convoluted with unimportant plot points, definitely rushing the final act of the film.
The supporting cast of the film is pretty stellar, with Scarlett Johansson playing the main love interest to Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon. Her character, Barbara Sugarman gives us a layered look into a stereotypical, spoiled Jersey Girl and honestly made me cringe at many points throughout the film. JGL also reunites with Angels in the Outfield co-star Tony Danza, who play’s Jon’s hot-headed father in what is both a hilarious and extremely revealing performance. Looking at Danza and Glenn Headley, who plays Jon’s mother, we get an idea of where Jon comes from and why he views love and sex with such self-involvement. Brie Larson, who plays Jon’s sister, also provides Jon with some sage wisdom towards the end of the film after staying glued to her cell phone for most of the picture. The character that I had a lot of trouble with was Esther, played by Julianne Moore. Esther, in many respects, helps Jon to see the error of his ways and therefore the character is incredibly vital; however, she doesn’t really show up until much later in the film, giving them no time to build the character. For someone who is so important to the plot and to how the main character grows, Esther just wasn’t given enough screen time and her plot progression was too rushed. That being said, Moore, a seasoned and mature actress, steps into the role completely, presenting Esther’s struggles and pain with a soft yet resonating performance.
I’m not ashamed to say that I really enjoyed Don Jon as it was a comedy that recognizes romantic struggle and knew when to take itself seriously and when to have fun. The porn aspect of the film was done very tastefully and I always understood its place in the film. I was never blown away or utterly impressed by anything in the movie, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy watching and going along for the ride. Joseph Gordon-Levitt pulls off a rare feat with taking on so many roles in a production, but I think it was a very entertaining film and I look forward to seeing more from him behind the camera.
Review by Harrison Richlin