Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Don Jon vs. The East, two very different movies written by actors about obsession and fantasy.
PremiseActing is no longer a sufficient pastime; to be truly respected in Hollywood, you have to operate on both sides of the camera. This is exactly what Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brit Marling do in their new films Don Jon and The East. Don Jon is the story of, you guessed it, Don Jon (Gordon-Levitt). Jon is a man who cares about, in order: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his boys, his girls, and his porn. Maybe that’s in reverse order, but there is a hierarchy there. He falls in love with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), and everything goes swimmingly until the woman of his dreams catches him engaging in his eighth-favorite activity. Tragicomedy ensues. The East tackles another evil of our modern-day world: the preponderant power of soulless corporations. Sarah (Brit Marling) is tasked with infiltrating an anti-capitalist group (The East) headed by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). She finds herself in too deep and faces the inevitable confusion about which side she should be fighting for. Drama and thrills, presumably, ensue. Don Jon may lowbrow, but its larger message focuses on the problematic role reserved for women in our Western society. The East seems like boilerplate—if well-executed—thriller fare.Advantage: Don Jon
Obsession“It would be easier if we didn’t feel the need to fight,” Benji says in The East. “If we could just let go.” But Benji does feel the need, and that’s the point. When a person has a calling—at least in the movies—it takes over their lives to the point where nothing else seems remotely relevant. Benji’s obsession gives him strength that Sarah does not have. His moral compass (any guesses as to which direction it points?) allows him to make coherent, cohesive decisions in a way that leading a double life does not. While Sarah may enter The East believing her obsession is to tear it down, we know that her intentions will grow cloudier each day she’s in the presence of a truly passionate group. Don Jon lays out his eight obsessions for us in the voiceover narration of the trailer. Unlike Benji, who uses his obsession as a prism through which to view each interaction he has, Don Jon’s obsession clouds his ability to deal with the world in front of him. When Barbara catches him watching porn, he thinks she’s being unfair, and that it’s the same thing as her romantic comedies. His inflexibility denies him an opportunity to be with a woman he loves. In the more-realistic world of Don Jon, obsessions are not a path to enlightenment, but an obstacle to real relationships.Advantage: The East
CastDon Jon and Barbara are a fictional couple that we desperately wish was real. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson doing Jersey accents and rocking Jersey attire—see the scene where they meet for lunch in a café—is slightly left-of-center, but feels so right. To that, add Tony Danza as Jon Sr., Brie Larson as Jon’s sister, Julianne Moore as his community college classmate, and a hysterical (in all senses of the word) Glenne Headly as Jon’s mother and you have a recipe for an excellent family dinner dynamic, which is on display here. The East features the always-excellent Brit Marling in a lead role. She is more than capable of delivering a quiet, yet powerful performance, and it will be fascinating to see her in a more action-packed movie. Although Alexander Skarsgård is best-known for his role in the vampire nonsense-pornography series True Blood, he seems capable of transferring his undead magnetism into the henley-wearing anarchist Benji. Ellen Page will be stepping into unfamiliar territory as his partner-in-crime Izzy, and it’s tough to tell from the trailer—her only line is “There will be consequences”—whether or not she can plausibly play threatening. There is promise in the cast of The East, but Don Jon is full of surefire winners.Advantage: Don Jon
ToneDon Jon, with its kinetic motion between boys, girls, family, gym, and pad, looks like it will have energy and tongue-in-cheek humor to boot. The trailer calls to mind Magic Mike, only with slightly less male nudity and a lot more Tony Danza sitting around the dinner table in a wife beater. Don Jon singing along to “Good Vibrations” is a perfect distillation of the mood: he’s singing along to a funny song, then he gets embarrassed that people can see, but not too embarrassed to stop singing. It looks to be a movie full of sunny impulses enacted by a somewhat-shady person. The East, on the other hand, looks like it’s shot either in the dark or under grey skies, a far cry from the poppy, light touch of Don Jon. The trailer features a lot of face-to-face revenge-taking against CEOs and some hot-and-heavy makeout sessions in the woods between Sarah and Benji. If you see this movie in the middle of the day, you might forget that the sun even exists.Advantage: The East
DirectorWhile Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a talented actor and a powerful screen presence, he has yet to prove himself in the director’s chair. Don Jon looks to be an entertaining movie with a novel premise, and will probably get a lot of mileage out of those two factors. Whether it is well-executed or thought provoking remains to be seen. It took Ben Affleck, another leading-man-turned-director, a few movies to find his groove. It’s probably safe to say Levitt is not quite where he will be in a few films’ time. Although Zal Batmanglij is not a household name, and The East is only his second feature, he is a director with talent to spare. His first film, The Sound of My Voice, was a fantastic drama about a couple’s involvement with a cult getting out of control. He knows how to take seemingly boilerplate narrative and infuse it with fresh life. The safe bet is that The East will prove that to be true.Advantage: The East
The VerdictBoth The East and Don Jon look like viable competitors for your moviegoing dollar. One of them is lighter and might veer into the pornographic, the other is much heavier and definitely deals with revenge fantasies against the 1%. It’s a tough choice, but The East gets a slight edge.Winner: The East