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Ira Israel Headshot

"Don Jon": The Masterpiece Most People Will Probably Not See

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Maybe you will catch an interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and be moderately intrigued. Maybe you will read a post on Facebook stating that "Don Jon" is funny or cute. Maybe you will hear that it is too smart and honest for its own good.

But there's something uniquely dis-appealing about "Don Jon." Not unappealing, not immediately repulsive. More like simply not-appealing. I mean, if you saw the poster for "The Graduate" in 1967 with Dustin Hoffman eyeing Ms. Robinson's leg you may have been titillated, but from whatever you gathered about the plot and characters of "Don Jon" I doubt that you will rush to see this stew of suburban dysfunctionality.

"Really?" you'll query, "a film whose basic premise is that relatively normal men objectify women and escape into the fantasies of Internet pornography? Do I really need to devote ninety minutes of my life to viewing the death of sensuality, the demise of intimacy, and the evisceration of romantic love (and not even get to see Scarlet Johannson semi-naked)?"

So you'll nod when someone mentions "Don Jon," acknowledging that you know you should see it but can't manage to find the time. You swear that you'll catch it on Netflix or maybe on your next Virgin Atlantic flight.

"Don Jon" could actually be the ultimate anti-date movie. I cannot fathom the conversations it would stir if two twenty-somethings mistakenly saw it on their first date (do twenty-somethings even "date" anymore?). Immediately they would be plunged into a world of authenticity rarely seen anymore except at funerals.

And I cannot even begin to imagine the discussion between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the marketing department of the film company.

Suit 1: Well, who's your target audience for this one, Joe, the same testosterone-filled guys who liked "Premium Rush?"

Joseph: Uh... not really, it kinda makes fun of the whole macho ideal.

Suit 2: So it's a romantic comedy like "500 Days of Summer?"

Joseph: Not quite.

Suit 1: It did well at Sundance - didn't it? So who do you think we should aim our $40 million dollar advertising budget at letting them know that you made this movie?

Joseph: That's a good question. Definitely not baby boomers - they'll be more horrified by "Don Jon" than they were by "The Ice Storm" when they witness how people treat each other today!

The suits laugh even though the reference careened over their heads.

Joseph: Uh... actually, I guess... you should market this towards... uh... the same people who see Woody Allen and Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Suit 1: All thirty-seven of them???
Awkward silence. Joseph didn't realize that nobody goes to see Woody Allen and Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Joseph: The film holds the mirror up to nature, guys. It's funny, but it's brutally honest about relationships.

Suit 2: What's that supposed to mean?

Joseph: I mean, it reveals the hypocrisies of gender roles, the inanity of our beliefs regarding recreational sex, the universal fear of intimacy of people of my generation, and our dependence on technology and virtual realities to gain any semblance of positive emotions or what I refer to in the film as "losing myself," which is blissful in comparison to the current state of most romantic relationships. Oh yeah, it makes fun of nuclear families and the church too.

Suit 1: Jesus Fuck, why don't we just start flushing money down the toilet right now???

Seriously, I would compare "Don Jon" to "The Graduate," "Manhattan," "Raging Bull," "Eyes Wide Shut" and the greatest film about masculinity I've seen, "Carnal Knowledge." However, my reading of "Carnal Knowledge" is that it is an unwitting "Fight Club," wherein the characters that Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel play actually comprise one average man with extremely conflicting desires and tools. Here that young, stymied, confused, afflicted and addicted - yet lovable and somehow wildly sympathetic - man is just your average Joe, "smashing" one lucky woman per week until he gets derailed not by Scarlett Johansson but the terribly damaged and exquisite Julianne Moore.

The venom with which Tony Danza spews the his racist question regarding Jon's reluctance to disclose who his girlfriend is - "What, is she black???" - is so palpably grotesque that it would be horrifying if it wasn't farcical.

This is by far the bravest achievement of Scarlett Johannson's career. Staid in "Lost in Translation," delightful in "Vicki Christina Barcelona," here she really acts. And unlike Julia Roberts, Ms. Johannson does not telegraph every thought and emotion before she mouths it. She fearlessly embodies the middle class ethos with all of its pretensions for a better yet conventional life along with her character's willingness and skill to manipulate her man in order to get what she wants.

It would be trite to call Ms. Johannson's "Barbara Sugarman" or Mr. Gordon-Levitt's "Jon" narcissistic. These are real people doing the best they can with the tools that they have and the coping mechanisms they have developed along the way trying to lead what they consider to be "the good life." These are people you know, these are people with whom you interact every day, not caricatures.

I hope that the Academy of Motion Pictures has the good sense to bestow nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director on Mr. Gordon-Levitt. I would like to see him go toe-to-toe with Destin Cretton and his "Short Term 12" in both of these categories next year.

We are amidst a tremendous renaissance of extremely poignant, smart, brilliantly made (costumes, sets, cinematography, and editing are stellar in both "Don Jon" and "Short Term 12") films and we need to support the creators of these new masterpieces.

So don't wait for Netflix or your next Virgin-Atlantic flight. If you love the art of cinema, go see these films today.