Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, U.S. 2013
“Comin’ home late at night to turn you on
Checkin’ out every frame,
I’ve got slow motion on my side.
Turnin’ around and around
With the sound and colour under my control
Round and around, goin’ down,
Dressed up like a lovely day.
Slow down child, let me untie your lace.”
U2, “Babyface” from Zooropa (1993)
Babyface, the second track off U2’s underrated 1993 album Zooropa, tells the story of a man who is in love with the image of a model on television. The song is the most blunt example of the album’s theme of social disconnect as personified by the media. Twenty years later, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut “Don Jon” explores similar themes, updated for the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Levitt presents us with his subject, Jon Martello (played by Levitt himself), who enjoys cleaning his apartment, hanging out with his friends and family, picking up women at bars, and watching pornography on the internet.
One night he meets Barbara Sugarman (a perfect performance by Scarlett Johansson). He is unable to bring home the first night they meet. Intrigued by this, he starts dating her. In turns, she insists on taking things slow and convinces him to go back to school.
Pretty dull right? Actually not so much, and this is where I commend Levitt, since he uses familiar romantic comedy plotting to deconstruct this familiar territory.
A key moment in the film is when Barbara and Jon are seeing one of those romantic comedies (dysfunctional boy meets girl, girl changes boy for the better, they get married, and scene). After this film within a film, Barbara is slowly revealed to have an idealized image of dating relationships that largely mirrors the common plots of these films, as demonstrated by her endless attempts to change Jon and her vindictive attitude towards several things he enjoys (watching pornography and, oddly enough, cleaning his apartment).
Likewise, Jon’s pathos is explored through his obsession with watching strangers do the horizontal mating dance on his computer and phone. His idealized image of sex based on these pixelated dirty movies has left him unable to enjoy sex with an actual woman, which is a problem to say the least. In fact, it is made increasingly clear to the audience that while Barbara is a vapid, controlling, spoiled brat, Jon stays with her because he somehow believes that her attractiveness will give him the same thing that his laptop gives him.
It doesn’t – and it can’t. As his friend Esther (Julianne Moore) points out, the idealized sex on his computer has very little to do with real sex, much less real human connection. As pointed out by Jon himself, Barbara’s obsession with romantic comedies is similar.
It is seductive to think that the representations of human interactions presented to us in the media can be approached in real life. Don Jon explores this issue, but it is also a funny, well constructed film. So bravo to Joseph Gordon-Levitt on his first feature film, and here’s hoping that it’s the first of many quality movies from him.
You might like Don Jon if: You are interested in the exploration of idealized media images and how they affect our expectations of real life.
You might not like Don Jon if: You have no interest in a film where part of that exploration involves the effects of internet pornography.
(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe