Warning: Major plot spoilers for Don Jon follow!
While we can always rely on the odd Nicholas Sparks movie to rope us back into the romantic comedy genre we know and (if only out of the comforts of familiarity) love, the last few entries that can be defined as rom-coms do not quite fall within the margins of our expectations. This summer, Drinking Buddies sent up the tried tropes of happy endings, perfect couples, and friends with benefits. On the horizon, we have About Time, which tosses in a sci-fi twist to bolster the love affair between a humble young time traveler and the apple of his eye. And in between the two, we have perhaps the biggest subversion of the lot: Don Jon, now in theaters, which turns every tradition of the genre on its head:
In your average rom-com, you have a good-natured fellow with one cloying tic that keeps him from being the perfect mate. He's too lazy, too timid, afraid of intimacy, lives with his parents, can't swim. Generally, it's a premise you would be able to tell your parents about without blushing. The very soil of Don Jon subverts this. What is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's titular hero's epic flaw? His addiction to pornography.
"So where are we going to set this one: Manhattan, Los Angeles, or Paris?" That seems to be the writers room discussion in the early drafts of every rom-com that hits theaters, opting to use the affluent, angelic locales to enhance the dreamy quality of the love stories on screen. But Don Jon takes a different approach, sticking its characters in suburban Jersey — a kingdom laden with clubs, churches, and accents so thick you can spread 'em on garlic bread.
The most important moment in any rom-com. The initial union of the man and woman in question needs to be sweet and unique, and to set the stage for their relationship on the whole. But in Don Jon, the first glance exchanged between Jon (Gordon-Levitt) and leading lady Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) is less infused with budding love than bursting lust. Jon spots Barbara in his usual Jersey club, eyes her up and down, and (through the benefits of alcohol) wins her attention, and a bit of physical contact. The very same way he's done many times before, and would continue to do thereafter.
The Perfect Moments
In most rom-coms? There are instances that let us know these two people are perfect for each other. In Don Jon... well, they're both attractive... but otherwise, we don't really see a whole lot of "meant to be" between Jon and Barbara, who have drastically conflicting ideas of masculinity, relationships, and love.
The Life Lesson
Ordinarily, a romantic hero will have some illustration of the perfect love story for which to reach, delivered in the form of a movie relationship, a childhood memory, or his parents' personal history. In Don Jon, we get the latter... and it's a few beats shy of an admirable tale. Jon Sr. (Tony Danza) recounts the moment he first lay eyes on Jon's mother (Glenne Headley), capping the narrative with a prideful recitation of his very possessive, unromantic words: "That's mine." The mentality that set it all into play.
The "True" Love
Don Jon skirts the idea of true love, of soul mates, of manic pixie dream girls swooping in to save the poor sap from himself... but Jon does find solace in the embrace of one woman. No, not Johansson's Barbara, but the kooky, emotionally erratic Esther, played by Julianne Moore. Usually, when you have a leading pair that looks like JGL and ScarJo, you glue them together. But Don Jon lets its star find peace of mind in a more nontraditional relationship.
The Fatal Flaw
In every rom-com, the man struggles to keep his horrible secret hidden from the woman of his dreams... and in every rom-com, it eventually rears its ugly head. The difference here is that this tragedy ordinarily prompts the hero to give up his vice once and for all to win the woman back. Jon, while working through his addiction in order to live a more satisfactory life, takes a much more gradual journey, leading to a much different resolution...
...one without Barbara entirely. One in which he can work on himself, not vying to satisfy an image lain out by his sex-starved father, his grandchildren-hungry mother, or the romantic comedy genre itself (with which Barbara is so rigidly obsessed). One where Jon can learn to live in the moment, experience intimacy, and appreciate the things he genuinely loves.