Enter any nightclub, lounge, or bar in Hoboken, New Jersey, on a fall or winter weekend evening and you'll see plenty of Jon Martellos walking around, probably wearing shirts that are too small and drinking Red Bulls with vodka.
They're easy to spot—just look for the bulging muscles, delicately styled hair, tattooed arms, and white V-neck T-shirts that would comfortably fit your 12-year-old cousin. They're always scheming, or, rather, sizing up the women in the venue as if they were undercover cops on the prowl for incognito call girls. Make the mistake of bumping into one of these guys and you're liable to get swung at, or at least bombarded with tough talk like, "Yo, bro, you got a problem?" or, "Bro, you gotta be kidding me!"
You could say that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's on-screen persona in Don Jon represents the exact kind of guy I've always wanted to punch in the face.
Born and raised in Northern New Jersey, I've been around more Jon Martellos than I'd like to admit. In fact, during his pre-marital years, my older brother was a Don Martello, and some of his equally Don-ish and pushing-40-year-old friends can still be found fist-bumping to the latest Avicii and Eric Prydz jams in your Hoboken location of choice.
I should backtrack a little here. Jon "Don Jon" Martello is the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the actor-turned-filmmaker's directorial debut, Don Jon. (JGL also wrote the screenplay.) Superficially speaking, it's about a porn-addicted New Jersey guido who can't form any meaningful relationships with women because, well, he can't stop watching random silicone-enhanced hotties have intercourse on camera. On a deeper level, though, Don Jon is at times a poignant little character study about a certain kind of male condition—behind all the posturing, mirror gazing, and workout sessions, the Jon Martellos of the world just want to meet the one special girl they can bring home to mom for a nice Sunday sauce dinner. Why else do you think he does the number of arm curls and barbell push-ups that Ron Burgundy mentions to Veronica Corningstone in one of his hilariously ridiculous fibs? When Mr. Anchorman says, "It hurts because I've done so many," he's lying; Jon Martello and his ilk would never say anything as soft-batch as that, since, you know, that would be sissy shit, bro. Those sexy honeys in the club don't want to hear about how sets of 100 are too much, bro—they want to hug up on dudes who can't gain enough muscles through this kind of pain:
Jon thinks he's met that kind of girl in Barbara Sugarman, a drop-dead gorgeous Jersey Princess played perfectly, and with a spot-on "Joizey" accent, by Scarlett Johansson. Unlike the other women who'll give up the goods after merely two shots of Patrón and, if they're lucky, a post-club omelette at the nearest diner, Barbara makes Jon work for her affection. Which he's willing to do for once, since, as he sees it, it's time to give his mother a reason to stop asking about when he's going to get married and start his own family. It's all going quite well for Jon and Barbara, too, until, you guessed it, she discovers the dirty X-rated secrets hidden inside Jon's laptop. Because of that, it's a wrap for him.
Watching Don Jon, I was repeatedly brought back to one unpleasant memory from several years back. I was in Belmar, N.J., long before Snooki, JWoww, and the rest of their clan infiltrated the nearby city of Seaside Heights and changed it from Relatively Inconspicuous Guido Central to MTV's Designated Land of Skeeviness. A few friends and I were at the large outdoor party spot called Bar A (short for Bar Anticipation), having some beers and asking ourselves, "What are we doing here again?" My friends and I, we're the guys Jon Martello daps up whenever his arms are tired from "beating up the beat," those times when he wants to stop talking about Benny Benassi's latest megamix and point out that he's also a fan slept-on rap albums like Screwball's Y2K or Cru's Da Dirty 30 (both of which have been mentioned to me by real-life Jon Martellos).
Inside Bar A on this particular day, we didn't know any in-attendance Jon Martellos personally, which meant that we received at least three dozen ice-grills from the anonymous dudes who didn't take too kindly to any one of us kicking game to one of their targeted Barbara Sugarman types. One of those Jons even bumped into one of my boys on the dance floor, as if to mark his territory, similar to how a cat will urinate on your couch once it's invited in for domestication. As badly as I wanted to snuff this asshole in the face, I stuck to my better judgment and called my friend over to the bar for some shots.
You could say that Gordon-Levitt's on-screen persona in Don Jon represents the exact kind of guy I've always wanted to punch in the face. Just last month, actually, inside Hoboken's new wannabe-NYC-club Boa, I was chatting up a beautiful Ms. Sugarman when this goony Jonny Martz variant and his ape-like cohorts kept pointing over to us and commenting amongst each other, most likely saying variations of, "What's that chick doing talking to that bro over there, bro? I mean, come on, bro, his jeans don't even look painted on, and his shirt fits him! She needs to come grind up on this right here! Feel me, bro?" Basically, it looked a lot like this scene from Don Jon but with a shaved-headed, 6'1" Italian dude rocking Sean John jeans and an Old Navy short-sleeve polo shirt standing to her left:
It's not that I completely disliked Don Jon. Despite its flaws (an overdone visual style that's all snappy editing and Edgar Wright and Requiem for a Dream), Gordon-Levitt's first film as a director is sufficiently entertaining, due in large part to Johansson's lively turn as the uncanny embodiment of every stunning Jersey girl I knew in high school and see every weekend in Hoboken or whenever I'm down in Atlantic City. She's the prototypical Mur.Mur and Mixx woman (those, for the uninitiated, being two of AC's most popular nightclubs), whose Facebook page overflows with pouty-lipped selfies and group shots of she and her indistinguishably dolled-up BFFs, some of which also feature the respective club's DJ, promoter, or Random Musclebound Jon Martello No. 6. If the Academy Awards brass gave out a statue for Best Portrayal of a Garden State Diva, Johansson would be a shoo-in.
On the flip side, however, Gordon-Levitt dangerously flirts with inspiring a new Razzie category for Most Stereotypically Broad Potrayal of a Jersey Meathead. In the way he talks (e.g., with the unwavering swagger of the world's most confident personal trainer) and in what his life's rituals consist of (i.e., spending long hours in the gym, stopping by his parents' house for pasta dinners and pissing contests with his dad, played by Tony Danza), Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon character has all the ingenuity of a "The Situation" Halloween costume that magically walks and talks on its own.
It's not until Don Jon's third act that the character finally stops being a caricature and becomes something much more compelling, thanks to the late-game introduction of an older, wiser, more experienced community college classmate named Esther (Julianne Moore). Able to see through Jon's shallow facade of an exterior and penetrate his inner softie, Esther is the best thing about Don Jon—narratively, that is (Johansson is the film's overall MVP). With her help, and powered by the always divine Moore's vibrant turn, Jonny Martello moves beyond what any Barbara Sugarman could easily bang after a few vodka-tinis in Hoboken. He upgrades himself into the guy who'll comfortably post up on the bar and crack jokes about the Ed Hardy models making dumbbell-raise motions in the air as Calvin Harris and Kelis' "Bounce" blasts through the speakers. The evolution from self-absorbed stud to self-aware and suddenly mature bud. A guy I could be friends with.
Which is why I can ultimately recommend Don Jon—once the film's first hour is over, and the titular character's meathead/Jersey Shore reject persona has crumbled, Gordon-Levitt's movie presents the sweetest and most honest May/December romance you'll see all year, albeit too briefly. His interactions with Julianne Moore signify that Gordon-Levitt's future as a visual storyteller is bright, assuming he's able to create protagonists that aren't on-the-nose satires of reality TV's favorite stars of the moment. Hopefully next time I won't want to slap the hell out of his movie's main character. Getting to first base with Barbara Sugarmans is already hard enough in New Jersey—the last thing I need to see is more of my favorite Hollywood actors playing the douchebags who always bag the sugar in real life.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)