I have had, in the past, an irrational hatred for the works of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Maybe it’s his genuine, fedora-topped, nice guy attitude in 500 Days of Summer, or maybe his attempt to break out of his genuine-fedora-topped-nice-guy-attitude image in Looper. Maybe it’s just his adorable button nose. Something about that guy makes me think I shouldn’t trust him farther than I can throw him (and that’s not very far). That being said, his new film, Don Jon, might have changed my mind.
A large part of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s charm as Don Jon comes from how very un-charming he can be. He pretty much sums himself up at the beginning: “There are very few things I care about in life.” He’s physically gorgeous but incredibly shallow, and has a narrow idea of what it means to be a good person. He enjoys taking care of his pad, going to the gym, having sex, watching porn. With a Jersey Shore accent and an obsession with Marky Mark, he’s not off-putting, but endearing. He’s a caricature.
The rest of the film’s world is similarly over-the-top. The stylized shots that place characters center frame, and the popping color scheme of the set give it an exaggerated reality. Don Jon’s loud, slightly dysfunctional Italian family is almost a stereotype, complete with a sullen teenager who spends the entire movie silently texting. Similarly exaggerated is his femme-to-beat-all-femmes girlfriend, played by the multi-talented and surprisingly funny Scarlett Johansson. Gordon-Levitt parodies the genre of romantic comedy mercilessly, he parodies the Catholic Church, or more aptly he parodies churchgoers like Don Jon who list the same sins every time they go to confession and say their Hail Mary’s while weightlifting. It’s all taken so far over the top that we don’t expect to take much of anything seriously.
In the middle of this cleanly and clearly stylized movie the shots of actual porn come as a shock. The dissonance of the shaky, handheld camera, the faces at awkward angles, the grating sound quality, not to mention the shots of women with bleary eyes and smeared make-up from giving a blow job seem such an ill fit with the kitschy, controlled atmosphere of the rest of the movie, one wonders for a moment if Gordon-Levitt was simply going out of his way to include these scenes for shock value or sensation.
Even if this were the case, I could forgive him for it, if only because in this romantic comedy, porn also serves a purpose it rarely serves in actual relationships: to tell us something true about love and sex. You’ll have to see the movie to find out how it pulls that off, but I can tell you that Gordon-Levitt chooses his moments of realism wisely.
Ultimately, we don’t go to romantic comedies for the conflict, we go for the resolution—we want to get to the part where they kiss and make up. Don Jon doesn’t seem to be interested in propagating this desire, but rather in exposing it. Exaggeration and parody serve to give us critical distance from the type of movie we’ve gone to see–a romcom, a fantasy of what straight love is supposed to be like. The porn may seem like a disruption from this fantasy world, but really the two together are just a collision of expectations, one fantasy in conflict with another. What’s impressive, though, is not how Levitt works to uncover delusions and undermine expectations, but how he goes beyond them. He seems to be striving not just to destroy idols and inauthentic images, but to earnestly create a more authentic conversation. Contrary to all prejudices, including my own, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon actually gets at what relationships—and sex—really can be.