Director Joseph Gordon-Levitt Stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore USA 2013 Language English 1hr 30 mins Colour
Comedy of contemporary sexual manners
Masculinity in crisis – Hollywood has always had a taste for that. These days, the danger apparently is the internet. So meet Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a working-class Italian Jersey boy good at the surface performance of being a man - he’s got the muscles, the muscle car, the ability to get hot girls to come home with him - but in essence (the film suggests) is a sad little tosser, who prefers solo pleasures with his laptop to real women.
Then, one day, he encounters the ‘most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen’ at a club… and she won’t put out. Having to make an effort to woo Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) – going out to lunch, watching the romcoms she loves – is an eye-opener for him, but not quite enough to make him change all his ways…
There’s a lot to enjoy about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut. It’s snappy, it’s reasonably funny, it’s well-structured around a series of recurring scenes – confession at church, Sunday lunch with his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) and silent sister (Brie Larson), and trips to the gym (where he performs the weekly penance prescribed by his priest). And I liked the argument about cleaning products.
But that might not be enough. I was uncomfortable with the class and sexual politics of the movie. Star/writer/director Gordon-Levitt is not a Jersey guy – he grew up in an LA showbiz family. I feel that he’s sneering at these characters – at Jon, at pushy, cock tease* Barbara, at Jon’s parents, at pretty much everyone except Jon’s slighty wiser buddy Bobby (Rob Brown) and Esther (Julianne Moore), the sadness-tinged bourgeois hippy who represents the path to light. This is a film that toys with the idea of moral equivalence between watching Anne Hathaway films and, oh, Anal Bandits 17, but dodges away from that before anyone gets too offended. This is a film in which hair product is a signifier of spiritual corruption. Like a lot of comedies, it wants us to enjoy its antihero’s caddish antics and then at some point switch abruptly and cheer him on the path to redemption.
Me, I don’t think Jon was that bad to begin with – he’s not a liar or a hypocrite, he’s houseproud and loyal to friends and family. He has an addiction, but the film never makes it look very degrading or damaging – this isn’t Shame, not by a long way, nor does it have the bleakness of Alfie. On the Patrick Bateman scale of narcissistic misogynists, Jon is barely a two. Arguably, although I’m sure Gordon-Levitt intended this as a feminist movie, when you look at the way Barbara is portrayed, the film has more of a problem with women than he does.
And it’s that simplistic, snobbish, slightly nasty worldview that in the end lets Don Jon down.
* The film’s big ‘ew’ moment, which is funny, happens when we see the sartorial consequences for Jon of Barbara’s ‘look, touch but don’t… ’ tactics.