Our generation stands at a crucial point in the history of love. As technology erodes the barriers of race, class, and sexual orientation, young adults are dismissing the concept of relationships built on cultural, societal, or economic influences. Instead, more of us than ever are realizing that worthwhile romantic partnerships are based on the potential to grow together as human beings—simply put, love for love's sake.
If you want to analyze changes in a generation, you turn to its pop culture. And if you want the simplest, most straightforward expression of that pop culture, you go see a movie. Two romantic comedies from the last year are strikingly similar for the first two-thirds of their durations. Tom Gormican's That Awkward Moment and Joseph Gordon Levitt's directorial debut Don Jon carry the same basic premise: Guy in his mid-twenties picks up his 'perfect girl' with the help of his best bros, only to disappoint her with his immature habits.
For That Awkward Moment's Jason (Zac Efron), a well-dressed graphic designer living in New York City, that habit is noncommittal. For the titular Don Jon (Gordon-Levitt), the quintessential guido, that habit is an addiction to porn.
After both men screw up their relationships however, the differences in the films become glaring: That Awkward Moment is what romantic comedies have been. Don Jon is what a romantic comedy should be.
Don's relationship with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), built on a foundation of lying and mistrust, is repulsively short-sighted and one-sided. In exchange for sex, Jon does whatever Barbara tells him to—he doesn't watch porn, he goes to night school, and he follows her to movies he doesn't like. But Jon sees right through the predictable romantic films Barbara loves: "Most people eat that shit up: the breakup, the makeup." After going through the motions—meeting his family, shopping for curtain rods together—Barbara finds evidence of Jon's habit and nastily breaks off the relationship.
Jason thinks his time spent with Chelsea (Imogen Poots) is just a fling, and because of that, can't bring himself to show up to her father's funeral. When she ends the relationship with a biting lesson about caring for another person, Jason realizes his blunder and does what just about every other character in a similar movie does. He shows up to one of Chelsea's book readings uninvited and, in the middle of an author's talk, stands up to deliver a speech pathetically rehashing the lessons she taught him. There's no sincerity or bravery in this kind of groveling, but it works. At the end of the movie, Jason waits for Chelsea on the bench where their relationship began.
That Awkward Moment could have lived up to its potential—and its title—had it let us watch Jason wait in the cold, check his watch, and leave. Maybe a nice, bittersweet sunrise.But it's not an awkward moment. Chelsea meekly shows up, and they walk happily off together—just like the caricatured couples in the movies Barbara eats up.
That Awkward Moment perpetuates the same shallow falsities that romantic comedies so often do, and that we so desperately hope to be true: that we can make up for screwing up a relationship by simply repeating the lessons we've been taught with a bouquet in our hand and a twinkle in our eye. But it doesn't work that way in real life. In real life, you move on.Even though his relationship with Barbara is kaput, Jon keeps going to night school, since he's only got a few weeks left. There, he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), the polar opposite of Barbara and of everything he thinks he wants in a woman. Esther isn't stereotypically attractive or overly feminine, she's considerably older than Jon, and she's not the type to spend a Saturday night at the club. But while porn drove Jon apart from Barbara, it drives him together with Esther.
When she sees him watching porn on his phone before class, Esther gives Jon an old 70s video on DVD. A few classes later, after Barbara has broken up with Jon, they have sex in her car. The week after that, Jon follows her back to her place, where we see just how delightfully mismatched they are. While Jon's place is filled with modern furniture, technology, and trophies, Esther's is a home decorated with paintings and wooden furniture.
And it's here that a true relationship blossoms—in which each person's interest in the other isn't myopic, but deep-reaching. Barbara got to know Jon's family; Esther gets to know Jon. He lets loose the motivations underlying his addiction to porn—"I lose myself…"—and Esther explains how one-sided his sex is. "If you want to lose yourself," she says, "you have to lose yourself in another person. And she has to lose yourself in you."
And then, for the first time in his life, Jon makes love—eye contact and all.
The end of the film, showing Jon's truly happy relationship with Esther, is accompanied by a dramatic shift in lighting. Previously and subconsciously, the director presented us with a barrage of dark blues and greys. Now, the famous golden light of dusk washes over the couple, and Jon's monologue explains that this is a relationship without pretensions and without expectations—they're in it just for the moment.
Don Jon reminds us of what we already know about love, but somehow always seem to forget: that the right partner is the person who will not only accept our flaws, but embrace them—and that sometimes, opposites really do attract, so we have to be a little open-minded.
Hopefully, our generation is one that won't take any lessons from blockbuster romantic comedies without a grain of salt—I think most of us would agree that we're smarter than that. But seeing a movie like Don Jon make it to the big screen is a very good sign.
–story by CAM KELLY