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Entries in 500 days of summer (2)

Friday
Sep272013

Don Jon

There are certain actors that, as a general rule, don’t make bad movies. You can probably find an exception here and there, but for the most part, these actors choose daring roles in audacious movies that are in a capable director’s hands. They know exactly what they’re doing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of those actors. From 2005’s underseen “Brick” to the emotional “50/50” to one of the most honest explorations of love ever put to screen in “(500) Days of Summer,” he has proven himself as one of today’s most versatile, and underrated, actors. His directorial debut, “Don Jon,” lacks the visual flair or steady pacing a more experienced director can obtain, but the quality is still there. From laughs to tears to some surprising and genuine meaning, “Don Jon” is a delight.

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a ladies man. He’s so successful with picking up women on a week to week basis that his friends actually call him “The Don.” He has no problem showing up at a club, meeting a girl, seducing her and taking her home for some late night fun. The problem is he considers sex secondary to his one true passion: porn. Put simply, he’s a junkie, someone who watches porn dozens of times a week, only to confess to his priest and be absolved of his sins. However, he soon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a knock-out he considers to be a perfect 10 in regards to looks. For the first time ever, he begins dating her, breaking his streak of hooking up with a new girl every week, but his love of porn and her strong hatred of it is going to strain their relationship.

“Don Jon” is a strange breed. It has central characters that aren’t good people, or even interesting ones. Aside from the title character, most are throwaway, including Jon’s two friends and his sister who stares into her phone the entire movie until speaking some words of wisdom near the end, and many of them do and say things that make you wonder why we should care at all about them. Even Jon has anger issues, particularly while driving, which is shown through random segues from scene to scene. While one scene culminates into him punching through the side window of a motorist’s car, the compilation of these scenes culminate to nothing. There’s no reason for this other than to create ill will towards a character we’re supposed to enjoy watching.

Yet the movie has a soul, even while some of the characters arguably don’t. Although most Hollywood movies portray sex and sexuality in ways that glamorize it to unrealistic heights, “Don Jon” looks at sex from a more spiritual view, despite the pornography focused central story. Jon is obsessed with porn and considers it the pinnacle of sexuality, something that can’t be topped by someone with whom he’s physically engaging. When Barbara comes along, he says he’s in love, but as he expresses his love to her, he says she’s “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever laid his eyes on. His love is purely for her aesthetic qualities and what she could potentially offer him in bed. He fails to realize the shallow and selfish person underneath those looks.

When they finally hop in the sack, she, unsurprisingly, fails to match the feelings watching pornography gives him. This is because he’s not truly forming a connection. Yet as the film goes on, he grows. From sources I won’t spoil here, Jon learns the true value of sex. He learns that sex can be something more than getting off, but rather something special between two people. It’s an interesting turn of events and a great exploration of what sex can offer aside from the obvious pleasures, even if the previous focus on porn addiction is simpleminded at best.

“Don Jon” isn’t a long film—a mere 90 minutes, including opening and closing credits—which may be why its themes don’t resonate as much as they should, but in a cinematic world that seems to value sex over love, we shouldn’t shun a movie that sees deeper meaning in the former, even while it mostly ignores the latter.

Don Jon receives 4/5

Friday
Apr272012

The Five-Year Engagement

Romantic comedies so often rely on formula, one should be praised when it dares to break the rules. The last film to do so is 2009’s wonderful (500) Days of Summer. This week’s latest, The Five-Year Engagement isn’t quite as delightful or original as that film, but it avoids many of the usual romantic comedy clichés, including the “meet cute” and the initial dislike between the two main characters before they fall in love.

At the outset of the film, Tom (Jason Segel), a sous chef in a San Francisco restaurant, and Violet (Emily Blunt) have already been together for a year. It’s New Year’s Eve and Tom’s acting a little weird, but it’s only because he’s going to propose to Violet. When he does, she accepts and they begin planning their wedding, but a kink is put in those plans when Violet is accepted into the University of Michigan where she hopes to earn a doctorate in psychology. The plan is to do so in two years, so they put off their wedding until she’s done and Tom quits his upscale job to move with her to Michigan. However, she excels in her field and is eventually promoted, so they find themselves stuck there for a few more years, but Tom’s unhappiness is growing and it’s going to put a strain on the relationship.

The Five-Year Engagement grabs you right off the bat. It presents two likable actors playing two very likable people who love each other deeply. It circumvents the overused screenplay tactics like dramatic misunderstandings and the general awkwardness that most romantic comedy screen couples are forced to go through. They’ve already gotten passed all that and even though it’s only spoken, you can feel that they’ve been together for a year already. Segel and Blunt are simply fantastic together and you can’t help but cherish the love they cherish so much themselves.

You could make the argument that Violet is too much of a looker for a tall, pudgy guy like Tom, but it’s not difficult to see what she sees in him. He’s one of the most dedicated, unselfish people in the world and when she breaks the news to him that she was accepted to Michigan and will be moving there for two years (over a bottle of wine she uses to calm her nerves), he’s genuinely happy for her and actually suggests quitting his job and moving there with her; she doesn’t have to ask. Even after he hears from his boss that she was going to make him the lead chef at one of her new restaurants, he still packs up and leaves, knowing that Violet is well worth the sacrifice. He’s willing to give up his dreams and desires he’s worked so hard to obtain so she can have a chance at obtaining hers. It’s impossible not to like Tom.

Violet isn’t selfish either (despite a poorly expressed sentiment that maybe she deserves to be). She never pressures Tom to do what he does and she is always aware of his feelings. She asks him about them so much, in fact, that he tells her to stop, assuring her he’s okay with the situation. Of course, he’s just being his usual supportive self and isn’t entirely okay with it, especially after she breaks the news to him that her two year stay has been extended (a two year stay that is breezed through far too quickly). After sacrificing two years of his life, he’s ready to move on and get back to San Francisco, which is now impossible if he wants to stay with Violet. This inevitably leads to some unavoidable relationship problems, both wanting to follow their dreams without causing the other to give theirs up, a hope that is unattainable.

The unhappiness of such a stressful situation is more than enough to bring forth drama—and in a way that isn’t indicative of your usual formulaic romantic comedies—but The Five-Year Engagement nonetheless falls victim to screenplay doubt, forcing in unnecessary drama on top of the problems at hand, like when Violet’s professor (Rhys Ifans) kisses her after a night of drunkenness. Their friendship is charming at first, so it’s that much more annoying when it devolves into typical rom-com fare. (It’s such a shame that a man and a woman can’t be friends in a Hollywood movie without eventually hooking up.)

At over two hours, The Five-Year Engagement goes on for too long, especially considering so much of the late movie drama stems from that redundant affair and could have been cut out altogether, but what it botches with the drama, it nails in the comedy. This is a very funny movie—not quite as funny as this year’s 21 Jump Street (but then again, it isn’t trying to be)—and it will leave you smiling more often than not. Regardless of its problems, it’s a movie that just makes you feel good and that in itself is worth giving it a recommendation.

The Five-Year Engagement receives 4/5