I’m glad we’ve got the first trailer for Don Jon, the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, because it gives me an opportunity to talk about something I’ve been thinking about since I saw it at SXSW this year. As romantic comedies have hit a financial and creative rough spot, one of the best responses to that lacuna has been a crop of movies about failed relationships and the things we learn from them that could be termed unromantic comedies:
The unromantic comedy isn’t precisely new territory for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who starred in one of the most resonant examples of the genre, Marc Webb’s 2009 hit (500) Days of Summer in which Tom (Gordon-Levitt) pursued Summer (Zooey Deschanel), falling in love with her in defiance of her repeatedly stated lack of seriousness about him. When they inevitably broke up, Tom was devastated and blindsided, especially when it turned out that Summer was capable of being serious about someone, just not about him. But the movie ended with him meeting another woman and sensing the prospect of a new relationship. The triumph in the film, and the indicator of Tom’s growth, wasn’t that he got together with Summer, but that he got over her.
Don Jon, which explores what happens when Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a porn junkie pickup artist with some serious road rage, meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who appears to be the girl of his dreams, but in a parallel to his own addiction, aspires to live out one of the romantic comedies she loves. It’s evident almost from their first meeting how terrible Jon and Barbara are for each other. Jon’s the kind of guy, as he tells us, hilariously and profanely in voiceovers, who believes things like “In real life, if you want to get head, you have give head. I know there are guys who like to eat pussy, but the thing about that is, they’re f—–g crazy.” Barbara, by contrast, measures her power over Jon by seeing how much she can get him to change his life and behavior for her, asking him “You take one class for me, just one little class?” when they make out at her doorway, and luring him to a ridiculously girly princess party for one of her relatives. Part of her behavior-modification program includes insisting that Jon give up porn and taking him to rom-coms with her instead, including a truly brilliant parody starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway under assumed names. As Barbara puts it “Movies and porno are different, Jon. They give awards for movies,” a distinction that’s both wrong in fact and ignores the extent to which romantic comedies have shaped Barbara’s worldview, and not for the better. The tension in Don Jon comes not from the idea that Jon might be unable to overcome his addiction to porn and as a result, lose out on Barbara, but that these two horribly mismatched people might end up together because it’s what they expect they’re supposed to do.
Then there’s I Give It A Year, which came out in the UK in February and also aired at SXSW, and which stars Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall as Nat and Josh, a couple who marry after a whirlwind courtship, rushing into matrimonial misery because they’re up against a different kind of narrative convention, that of time. “We’re at the age where we both wanted to find the one,” Nat tells their couples counselor at the beginning of the movie when they seek help not because, as their therapist asks “Does he have tremendously niche desires?” but because, as it turned out, they were so entranced by the idea of having found “the one” that they made a lifetime commitment without knowing each other very well. “Trying to decide if I think that’s endearing or if I want to bludgeon you to death with a shovel,” Nat says of Josh’s mannerisms, while he’s driven berserk by her tendency to sing out loud while dramatically misinterpreting lyrics to songs like “Sweet Dreams,” which she thinks features a protagonist who “traveled the world in generic jeans.” These small incompatibilities might have been surmountable had Nat and Josh not respectively met and reconnected with people who do truly know them and like them as they are. By the time film enters a state of actual parody, when Nat tells Josh “You’ve made me the happiest woman in the world,” when they agree to divorce, and Josh tells her, in utter joy, “I will never have to see you again. Ever,” it’s a catharsis to see their well-intentioned efforts to save their doomed marriage binned for good.
Neither Don Jon nor I Give It A Year are anti-love, precisely. The former, in fact, has a strikingly romantic ending, and if the latter fails to reach the same emotional heights, it’s because I Give It A Year knows it’s more successful at satire than sincerity. But while most romantic comedies focus on the work that couples do in the relationship they’ll end up in, putting their bad dates, agonizing breakups, and most hurtful failures in the past, unromantic comedies take a step back in time to focus on the fallacies, self-delusions, and errors that precede successful, long-term relationships. And despite their hyper-reality and critiques of conventional romantic comedies, both Don Jon and I Give It A Year share what’s essentially a very sweet lesson. The pursuit of romcom-perfect, milestone-hitting relationships can be exhausting and personally destructive. And that’s too bad, when the real thing can feel so natural and so gratifying, even if it comes in a form you didn’t expect.