The romantic comedy genre is one of the oldest and most popular in the history of major Hollywood filmmaking. Of course, this means it can be difficult to make a film in the genre that truly stands out. Audiences are familiar with the existing formulas, and creating something truly fresh and interesting isn’t always easy.
That’s one of the reasons Don Jon is such an exceptional romantic comedy. Released in 2013, this movie defies viewer expectations in several major ways. Perhaps more importantly, it’s unique among other entries in the genre because it directly comments on the way in which romantic comedies (and media in general) can influence the way people think about their relationships in real life.
In fact, according to interviews, this is exactly what director and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt had in mind when developing the film.
Does life imitate art?
Don Jon marks Gordon-Levitt’s first project in the director’s chair. Like many directorial debuts—especially those that aren’t based on existing properties, but are instead spawned from original ideas—the idea for the movie was knocking around in the director’s mind for several years before he actually began work on the film.
Speaking to the Huffington Post, Gordon-Levitt explained that the origin of this film came in the form of some basic notes he made in 2008 as he was developing the idea for the story. At that stage, he simply knew he wanted to make a movie about the way entertainment can fuel objectification in romantic relationships. He wanted to imagine what would happen if a male character who based his romantic expectations on pornography got involved with a female character who based her expectations on typical Hollywood romantic comedies.
Already, it’s clear this was a unique concept for a movie in this genre. That’s because it directly addresses the way the conventions of the genre impact the people consuming these films. Approaching a familiar story from this fresh perspective gave the director and everyone else involved in the project the opportunity to make a statement about how romantic comedies and other forms of entertainment can give a person unrealistic expectations about human relationships.
In the same interview, Gordon-Levitt explained that he personally believes people too often dismiss films and music as mere entertainment. In this movie, he planned to make the argument that such media does inform our personalities and overall perspectives on life. He pointed out that even when filmmakers release movies that are solely designed to entertain, the finished products can’t help but shape the opinions of the people watching them.
A film that has a clear point-of-view
Gordon-Levitt’s passion for making a statement is another reason Don Jon stands out in a crowded genre. Far too often, the creative teams behind romantic comedies don’t appear to have much genuine emotional investment in the project. One person writes it, another person rewrites it, and a director looking for a gig takes on the project despite not having any personal connection with the material beforehand. “Formulaic” is a word that’s often used to describe these films.
That wasn’t the case with Don Jon. Having spent years in front of the camera as a child actor, Gordon-Levitt wanted to exercise his newfound clout in the industry to make a romantic comedy that expressed his personal values and beliefs.
That may be why he chose to both direct and star in the film. Although Christopher Nolan, who had previously worked with him on other projects, enthusiastically supported Gordon-Levitt’s plans to direct his own film, Nolan also warned him against taking on both directorial and starring duties. Nolan simply believed this would be too much responsibility for a first-time director.
Despite respecting Nolan’s opinion, Gordon-Levitt ultimately decided he wanted to both direct and star in the film. Based on the final product, it’s clear that this was the right choice—he excels at portraying a realistic, memorable character and weaving together a compelling narrative that grapples with big questions. Allowing someone else to take on the lead role may have taken something away from the film, and letting someone else direct (Gordon-Levitt also wrote the script) may have had the same impact.
In fact, Gordon-Levitt believed making the film independently was the only way it could have been made in the first place. He expressed gratitude for not having to work under the control of a major studio. In such a situation, he believed the film would not have been made at all.
Fortunately for viewers, it was. The result: a romantic comedy that has a truly personal meaning for its writer, director, and star.
That’s what makes Don Jon such an impressive entry in this genre. It understands the role entertainment plays in our lives. Instead of simply trying to distract audiences for a couple of hours, it gives them a message worth thinking about long after the credits roll. That’s rare in this genre, but when a movie like Don Jon comes along, it’s a welcome treat.