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We Netflixed This: ‘Don Jon’

Netflix is usually the place where the bored and relaxed go to indulge in their usual comforts. A season of a TV show you liked five years ago here, a movie starring your favorite actor there. You don’t necessarily see people leave their typical likes and dislikes. 

Why not use Netflix to try and discover new movies and shows that you’d never find in your “Because you watched…” folders and take a look at some of the truly weird stuff the medium has to offer? That’s what AP Party contributor Steve Lepore and Samantha Murray thought. In “We Netflixed This,” they’ll examine some of the various oddities (and possible secretly great films) available to us thanks to Netflix’s ability to watch everything forever.

The film: Don Jon, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s independently-made directorial debut about a pornography-addicted young man and his relationship with his family, his girlfriends and his aforementioned porn. The film was released last year to mild acclaim (81% on Rotten Tomatoes) and made $30 million at the box office against a $6 million budget.

Cast: Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza, Glenne Headley, Brie Larson and Julianne Moore

Netflix Rating: 3 and a 1/2 stars out of 5. Similar 3 and a 1/2 star titles include Star Trek into DarknessRichard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, and Sex Drive.

Steve Lepore: What did you think this movie was before you saw it?

Samantha Murray: I think I thought this movie was going to be more fun than it was. The trailers were all pretty up-front with their jersey shore, bro-y GTL + porn thing, so it kind of looked like it was going to be Joseph Gordon Levitt frolicking around and screwing up his relationship with Scarlett Johannson, then Julianne Moore would enter as the “love of a good woman turns it all around” character.

SL: I thought it would be formulaic, but I also assumed it would be sort of in on the joke, which I’m not totally convinced this movie was. Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems like a pretty charming dude, if a little eccentric. This movie seems like him overreaching to try something big and voice-of-a-generation-y with his first movie.

The problem is that I’m not totally sure what generation he thinks he’s the voice of. Who is this movie for really, I guess is my question? It doesn’t seem to be for the type of person the movie is made about, though wouldn’t it be hilarious if some couple went through this movie just yelling at each other saying “SEE, I TOLD YOU SO!”?

SM: It’s more of a sociology project masquerading as a movie.

I’ve met a lot of guys who do the puffed-up bravado “yeah man, i’m on a streak, I’ve gotten with 10′s every night this week” kind of thing. I really don’t feel like any of them would see this movie and realize that the reason why nothing is ever good enough for them is because they have a porn-shaped hole in their lives and that they are the one that’s lacking as a partner.

But at the same time, there are plenty of women that are the Johansson character too. Carefully time the dates and don’t put out too soon so that no one can call you a slut, take your project and mold him into a successful man, “If he really loves you, he’ll do anything for you.”

I’m definitely not saying it’s a perfect counterpoint, but there is something interesting in the movie of how people can approach each other with these warped ideas about love and sex, and what they should ideally look like that wind up ruining relationships before they really have a chance.

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What I think Don Jon didn’t really examine enough is that he clearly had a similar idea, a classic Madonna/whore dichotomy. He never considered actually dating any of the other “10s” he’d been with that week, and why is that? Because he’d already had sex with them. Jon’s obsessed with sex but uninterested in anyone that will actually have it with him.

SL: As Julianne Moore’s character/other person for JGL to talk to points out, he wants someone to lose himself in, but he won’t “lose himself” to anyone but himself.

I want to go back to your point about Scarlett Johansson’s character being depicted as representative of a whole other subset of movies that can seem harmless, but probably aren’t realistic in terms of finding in a partner, which is the rom-com.

Is maybe the fatal flaw of this movie from the start that you’re never going to be able to drive home the point that rom-coms warp people’s expectations just as badly as porn does? There’s never going to be a (down-to-earth) depiction of a woman addicted to romantic movies that can look as obvious and Jon’s addiction to porn does here. I guess what I’m getting to is: does the movie not make rom-coms seem harmful enough, and does Don Jon maybe not stand up for porn enough?

SM: It’s no He’s Just Not That Into You, that’s for sure.

I think the whole thing just came across as kind of ridiculous in the movie, because Scarlett Johansson’s character had unrealistic expectations but for the most part, they really weren’t harmful. She wanted him to meet her family and friends, to take a class and do something with his life. She was a little pushy, but these are not unreasonable things.

She wanted to have a typical Real Relationship. Nothing she actually asked him for was unreasonable, aside from the freak-out she had about Jon cleaning his own apartment, which I feel was just tossed in there to make her seem unlikable because ultimately you’re supposed to feel like JGL made the right choice in letting her get away.

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It’s not like you would nod along and be like “she wanted him to take a class — SHREW!” Whereas he’s obsessed with porn to the point that he can’t have fulfilling relationships with other people and he jacks off eleven times a day. One of these things is not like the other.

I know I made a toss-off joke about it, but He’s Just Not That Into You actually does do a pretty good job of dismantling some of the rom-com things and how they can warp people’s expectations of what relationships should be like and what kind of cues you should be reading into.

I think if Don Jon had delved more into that territory, like Barbara was consistently misreading Jon or they were constantly butting heads about something, that would be different. Instead, he just kind of went along with everything. So is it her fault for expecting things or is it his fault for playing along? That one’s kind of a two-way street.

SL: I should then add that Julianne Moore’s character is not necessarily another person to talk to. If you look at the film this way, she’s basically just a last attempt to make the character socially acceptable, even though she gets rid of everything the character does that would make him unacceptable. Oh, and she has a dead family. Spoiler alert.

SM: I thought that her role was really interesting because it does kind of spin that “he just needs the right woman” trope around. Because she is so, so not the right woman. She’s a woman in free fall that happens to be soaring past him.

SL: I think you pointed out while we were watching that, honestly, it’s a character zapped in from a better movie about a woman trying to regain her independence but also find some sort of weird comfort in the wake of a tragedy.

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SM: Yeah, I definitely still feel that way. If anything, the ending just kind of reinforced that.

What I do think is interesting though is that it’s the Barbara character that gets criticized for treating Jon like a project, but Julianne Moore’s character does the same thing. She basically housebreaks him.

SL: Yeah, but I think you look at why these people are treating the Jon character as a project. Brie Larson rightfully calls out (at least from her perspective) that Barbara just wants a man who will do whatever she says, and be the sort of fairy tale relationship she sees in movies. Julianne Moore is basically having sex with this adorable younger man and making him more palatable out of boredom, and probably as a way to ignore a ton of depression and therapy that will come once they break it off.

SM:  Moore meets some guy that’s… I don’t even know what descriptor I want to use here, but he’s the kind of guy that watches porn on his phone in class (so, you know, he’s someone that was in my Nature of Politics lecture) and gives him porn homework. Their relationship only works because she’s more of a mess than he is.

And in a way, I actually think their relationship is kind of a cop-out. It becomes all about “losing yourself” in the other person, and she has a lot of things she’s trying to forget. They put emphasis on how he’s changing and all his old ways are falling away, but he’s still not in a functional relationship.

Don Jon 2 would almost definitely allude to some Bad Times for that character.

I guess one more topic I wanted to bring up is that we kind of chose this movie because we both grew up and live in the area and supposedly “around” the type of person that’s being satirized, the “bros” of Northern New Jersey. How did you think Gordon-Levitt — since he both wrote and directed it — handled that aspect of the film, as far as the characters go?   

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SM: The accents were kind of a mess and, as you pointed out, we don’t get Carl’s Jr. commercials here. But I will also definitely say that YES, I have met some guys like this. I actually think that might be one of the strengths of the movie, is that they’re satirizing something that’s become so ubiquitous: the guido.

The loyal Jersey girl in me wants to do the usual protesting about negative stereotypes and how they’re a minority here and blah blah blah, but I ultimately think it’s a convenient shorthand for what the story wanted to do. If I wanted to tell a story about people with commitment issues because they’re just. so. chilllllllll, man, and I didn’t have a lot of time to set that up, I’d probably use surfers in California, you know?

So I guess what I’m saying is that I get it, even though I don’t condone it. But we have Snooki, The Sopranos and Chris Christie — it’s not like we can start spouting about protecting our good reputation.

SL: I agree, and so much so that I don’t think Julianne Moore’s character existing is the craziest thing on earth. Much like the state itself, you’re going to find a lot of weird, disparate types of people in New Jersey. Some of them are guidos, some of them are meticulous burnouts who want to have sex with guidos. [Accepts giant check on behalf of the state tourism board.]

Verdict

Murray: It was okay. I’d say 3 out of 5. It has some interesting things to say, even if it doesn’t go about saying it in the most eloquent way. Everyone involved is very enjoyable. I would say its biggest problem is putting the cart before the horse — when the underlying theme of the movie is glaringly obvious in the first eight minutes, the rest of the movie can feel long. Recommended for all men that need a reality check and for no women that need a Girls’ Night pick-me-up.

Lepore: I mostly agree, and I think there’s a lot of problems with the film, but I think not enough that it’ll stop Joseph Gordon-Levitt from trying again. I think JGL will have to learn from some of the mistakes he made doing this, but I do think that it was kind of an audacious idea and I hope he comes back with something as bold but with enough to say over 90 minutes. Maybe a movie about that Julianne Moore character…

Other assorted thoughts: 

  • You may have noticed we played kind of fast and loose with names of characters, and that’s because they’re kind of a joke. ScarJo is named “Barbara Sugarman”and the only reason we could think of why is because it allowed Tony Danza to go on a xenophobic rant about names. Julianne Moore’s character is named “Esther” because that is an old lady’s name and this movie wants to make sure you know she is an old lady.
  • In case you can’t tell, both us of really, really, really love Julianne Moore. Keep on doing what you’re doing, JM.
  • Glenne Headley plays JGL’s mom in this movie, and both of us agreed that as boorish as Tony Danza’s father is, he doesn’t come within a light year of treating her as terribly as Mr. Holland did.
  • Jon’s take on Anne Hathaway is that she’s too thin. SL: “That’s fairly nuanced, compared to most people.” SM: “He’s not a Hathahater, he’s more Hapathetic.”
  • All said, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s accent does aim for Tony Soprano and end up at Mark Wahlberg, which we both agreed kind of equaled The Situation. Do people still remember who The Situation is?
  • SM: “This guy has not watched enough SVU if he thinks porn can’t kill him.”
Steve Lepore

About Steve Lepore

Steve Lepore is a writer for Bloguin and a correspondent for SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.

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