I couple of years ago I had the soul crushing bit of bad luck to have to sit through movies with names like “Just Go With It,” “Friends with Benefits,” “No Strings Attached” and “New Year’s Eve.”
Romantic comedies. Rom coms. Whatever you want to call them, it was a punishing year spent watching good looking do the same thing over and over again—meet cute, fall in love, then fall out of love before walking off into the sunset, happily ever after.
Kathryn Heigl, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Timberlake, Kate Hudson and Chris Evans not only tested my love of movies, but my love of love in that grim year.
At the time I declared the rom com dead.
I suggested it could be resurrected if someone like Quentin Tarantino came along and completely reinvented the genre, but the chances of that happening were about as great as Kristen Bell finding herself alone as the end credits roll.
Then along came Joseph Gordon-Levitt and “Don Jon.” Tarantino must be too busy reinventing the grindhouse genre to bother with rom coms, but the former “Third Rock from the Sun” star isn’t.
Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed, stars as Jon Martello, nicknamed Don Jon because he is the godfather of meeting women in bars. He and his pals (Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke) troll nightclubs in search of “dimes”—perfect tens—but in secret Jon prefers the company of his computer. Addicted to porn sites, he spends an inordinate amount of time surfing the net, looking for the perfect video to “lose himself in.”
He can’t even give the habit up after he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a beautiful, gum snapping Jersey girl who thinks people who watch porn are sick. She encourages him to go back to school, to better himself, which he does, all the while watching porn.
The porn addiction (SPOILER ALERT) eventually drives a wedge between them, but he soon learns about true intimacy when he meets an older woman (Julianne Moore) at night school.
“Don Jon” is a rom com is disguised as a character study. Jon’s romantic dalliances are a context for his intimacy issues, but the romance comes in unexpected places, subverting the formula that makes movies like “Sweet Home Alabama” so predictable.
The comedy comes from the characters. Imagine all the guys from “Jersey Shore” rolled into one porn-obsessed lothario and you have Gordon-Levitt’s foul mouthed but spot on portrayal of Jon.
Johansson, who swallows her words in what may go down as one of the greatest Jersey accents ever to be captured on celluloid, is the movie’s McGuffin. She appears to be the girl of his dreams, but she is simply the physical embodiment of his bombshell porn dreams come to life. It’s because he doesn’t love her that he learns what love actually is.
Cudos also go to Tony Danza as Jon’s father. He’s a carbon copy of the hot headed horn dog, and living proof that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“Don Jon” is a stylish, crude look at romance with loads of laughs. It shows off Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s promise as a filmmaker, but more importantly it reinvents the rom com in a fun—although vulgar—way.
Kathryn Heigl is gorgeous. She’s a blonde bombshell in the tradition of Jean Harlow, a collection of curves, fiery lips and bundled blonde hair that looks as though she just slithered out of a 1950s film noir. She’s also smart, produces her own films and is out spoken about all the right causes. She should be the total package, but the trouble is, on screen, I find her cold. She emanates ice, and not in the classic Alfred Hitchcock cool blonde way. That coldness could work for her in some roles but it is a little hard to swallow in the rom coms she makes between seasons of Grey’s Anatomy.
Her new film, The Ugly Truth, feels like an updated Doris Day / Rock Hudson battle of the sexes; a look at how men and women perceive one another. Heigl is Abby Richter, the terminally single producer of a morning television show. In an effort to boost sagging ratings the station manager hires controversial correspondent Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler). “He is everything that is wrong with television and society,” says Abby. His proudly male chauvinist schtick about how women don’t understand what men want—he’s equal parts Dr. Ruth, Dr. Phil and Hugh Hefner—despite Abbey’s disdain, connects with her audience. They are, in the grand tradition of romantic comedies, oil and water, but despite their differences Abby turns to Mike for hints on how to connect with Colin (Eric Winter), the proverbial good looking doctor next door. Maybe, just maybe, though, love is closer than either of them think…
Movies like The Ugly Truth live or die based on the charm of their stars. Butler can pull off the charismatic rogue role but Heigl grates. It would have been interesting to see Reese Witherspoon or maybe a 1980s vintage Meg Ryan in the same role to judge whether their appeal could rescue this otherwise sad excuse for a rom com.
It’s not just that it is predictable. Originality isn’t a trademark of the genre, so the set up and pay off are expected before the opening credits roll. This one has a few more four letter words than usual but plays out pretty much how you might imagine.
So, if it isn’t the inevitable happy ever after story line that drags The Ugly Truth down, what is it? Well, how about the Three’s Company level dialogue? The lame jokes, writing style and battle of the sexes subject seem to harken back to a different time. Like when Jack, Janet and Crissy were still roommates and bell bottoms were considered cool at the disco. The jokes have been given a makeover but the underlying themes seem twenty years or more of date.
There are a few laughs sprinkled throughout however—the women in the audience I saw this with seemed to find some of Mike’s observations like “For men self improvement stops with toilet training,” hilarious—but if there were any fewer laughs this would simply be a romance, not a romantic comedy. Another scene involving vibrating underwear and a restaurant got some laughs but I thought it was funnier the first time I saw it in When Harry Met Sally.
The Ugly Truth is neither ugly—Heigl and Butler see to that—or truthful—the hackneyed take on relationships sees to that.