Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 2013 directorial debut, belongs to a very crowded genre. It feels like Hollywood has released dozens of rom-coms every year since movies had sound.
To be fair, that’s because audiences love these types of pictures. Nearly everyone enjoys seeing charming, attractive people fall in love on screen, and nearly everyone enjoys laughing. It’s easy to understand why these movies are so popular.
The problem is, when there are so many of them hitting screens each year, it’s extremely easy for studios to produce romantic comedies that don’t have anything interesting to say. For every Annie Hall, there are scores of generic and formulaic films that fail to make a bigger impact on audiences.
Don Jon stands out among the major rom-coms of the past few years by knowing when to adhere to a successful formula, and when to make changes. It does so in these key ways.
Keeping the Entertaining Elements
Again, while there are exceptions, most rom-coms feature attractive characters who audiences like to watch on screen. Don Jon is no different. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, along with writing and directing the film, plays the protagonist. His boyish charm gives audience members a reasonably likeable character to spend time with.
For much of the movie, he’s pursuing a character played by Scarlett Johansson, another big star viewers are usually happy to see on screen.
Rom-coms should feel like light entertainment, even when they actually have bigger points to make. That’s why casting likeable actors is essential. Don Jon doesn’t deviate from this basic expectation.
It also keeps the rapid-fire humor that make successful rom-coms audience favorites. Scarlett Johansson is given a break from her duties as Marvel’s Black Widow to show off her substantial comedic chops. Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t afraid to play a seemingly brainless character for laughs. Tony Danza reminds audiences that he can bring a manic energy to the screen that elevates the material on the page.
Again, a strong rom-com should be different, but not too different. Viewers pay good money to see movies. They expect certain types of experiences based on genre norms. The people on screen in a rom-com should be fun to watch, the overall tone should be fairly light, and the humor should come at a reliable pace. Don Jon preserves these elements, but it also knows when to surprise audiences.
Having Something More to Say
Unfortunately, a lot of Hollywood rom-coms don’t have their own unique points-of-view. The stories they tell are usually predictable: two attractive people meet, develop a connection despite personal obstacles, nearly lose each other as a result of those obstacles, and finally work through them in the last act.
These stories may make for entertaining distractions, but they rarely make for truly classic films.
Don Jon starts much like other films in its genre, with two characters meeting and having an immediate connection. However, from the start, it doesn’t quite follow all the conventional genre rules.
Rom-com writers face the difficult task of conveying what it feels like to fall in love. In reality, this experience usually takes time. Two people must learn a lot about one another to experience a deep emotional connection. That’s not easy to dramatize.
Most rom-coms get around this problem by simply casting good-looking people in the lead roles. Filmmakers hope viewers will be charmed enough to overlook the fact that these two characters don’t seem to fall in love the way real people do.
Don Jon doesn’t shy away from this, even in its early meet-cute sequence. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is very clearly drawn to Scarlett Johansson’s because of a strong physical attraction. There’s very little real emotional substance supporting their budding relationship. One character pursues the other to satisfy physical desires, while the other accepts these advances in order to fulfill their own romantic fantasies, the kind they probably learned from less-memorable rom-coms.
Most movies in this genre end up being about little more than two beautiful people winding up together. Don Jon exposes why this kind of simplistic story may give viewers unhealthy perspectives on romance in general. Watching too many rom-coms with generically beautiful characters can make a viewer start to value physical attraction over true emotional connection. Similarly, watching too many formulaic rom-coms can convince a viewer that their own romantic life should follow an established formula.
That’s why Don Jon deserves credit. As a rom-com, it remembers to be entertaining. However, it also knows that having something to say is important. Sometimes that involves breaking some of the rules. Don Jon breaks rules exactly when it should, while also following them if they benefit the story. Doing so makes it stand out in one of the most competitive genres around.