A fun flick with charismatic performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jon Martello), Scarlett Johannsen (Barbara Sugarman), Julianne Moore (Esther), and Tony Danza (Jon Senior), Don Jon is an interesting fusion of romantic comedy and coming of age genres, but it suffers from shallow one or two note characters who are basically archetypes.
There are some funny moments here, the foremost being in a night class setting when Esther, without warning, busts Jon for watching pornographic videos on his phone.
There are also a handful of touching moments, the most significant once again being between Esther and Jon.
The previous two bullet points illustrate one of Don Jon’s weaknesses even as they highlight strengths. The most interesting and impacting relationship in this film, the one from which growth derives, and the one from which some of the humor comes, is that between Jon and Esther. Yet, this relationship is secondary, at best, and maybe periphery. The relationship between Jon and Barbara gets the most treatment. I think you could also argue that Jon’s connection to his family and friends is more important than his connection to Esther. That seems odd. As a coming of age tale, this movie is all about the protagonist, and I’m fine with that. The cast needn’t be ensemble, but given that Esther is the most important person in Jon’s plot, it seems like we should have seen more of her.
And less of Barbara. Much less. Let me clarify: I think Johannsen is very good as Barbara, capturing the character’s charisma even while portraying her shallowness. I am not, in other words, critiquing the actor. I am critiquing the character. Barbara has one note, and we pick up on it faster than Jon. She never changes, never investigates herself, never reflects. In that way, Barbara is less complex, less compelling than Esther, another fact we know earlier than Jon. To some extent, that’s fine. Jon is shallow, too, and Barbara is beautiful, so we can understand why it takes him so long to realize her flaws, but it still means we’re spending a lot of screen time and some emotional capital with someone whom we do not empathize nor particularly like.
That said, there is probably a reason Gordon-Levitt doesn’t give up Barbara to spend more time with Esther. Jon is every bit as shallow as Barbara and his growth is thereby not revolutionary. It doesn’t take Esther long to explain what Jon’s doing wrong, because, well, what he’s doing is obvious. Plus, Gordon-Levitt’s script isn’t all that interested in investigating the complexities of addiction, so it never paints Jon as an addict, which means having him grow out of his bad behavior is relatively easy. In that way, Jon’s growth does not feel rushed; if anything it might be too slow, which is to say we don’t need more time with Esther for the plot to work. (Although one additional scene after Jon’s final conversation with Barbara might have been useful.)
Therein is why I say Don Jon suffers from shallow one or two note characters. Neither Jon nor Barbara have enough depth to make this movie as powerful as it might have been if the two leads had been more complex.
Before ending, I will say I love how Gordon-Levitt, as writer and director, draws subtle parallels between Jon and Jon Senior. I also love how he uses his visual motifs (the confessional, Sunday family dinner, driving the car, working out, etc) to define and demonstrate change in his character.
There is a lot to like about Don Jon, and it is consistently entertaining. It just isn’t special.