In honour of academics I admire, I’ve decided to write about a trailer, rather than a movie. I’ve watched the trailer for the upcoming film Don Jon several times and intend to see the film when it comes out, but the trailer itself is a fascinating assembly of concepts, sounds and images that tells its own narrative and forms its own (unique?) association with the viewer.
Studies of trailers have demonstrated that they have their own structure, narrative and meaning, while industry logic dictates that a trailer must highlight the main selling points of the film. Don Jon’s trailer establishes the (presumably eponymous) protagonist, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the equilibrium of his life, the disruption to this equilibrium and the likely resolution. In doing so, the trailer suggests the narrative of the film, which the viewer can anticipate due to the tropes and conventions of the genre, a genre also suggested by the trailer.
The genre and narrative of Don Jon are inextricably linked, to that familiar and much derided body of films, the romantic comedy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as he appears in the trailer, plays a young man who works out, loves his family and community, picks up girls and enjoys pornography. Indeed, the pillars that constitute the equilibrium of Gordon-Levitt’s life are emphasised, his voiceover listing what he cares about: ‘My body; my pad; my ride; my family; my church; my boys; my girls; my porn’. It is interesting that these priorities do not include a job, which helps to frame Gordon-Levitt’s character as a funseeker, doing what he likes. Whatever his job may be, it is not something he cares deeply about. The trailer’s emphasis of his pleasures suggest a target audience of similar funseekers, or those who want the escapist pleasures of cinema, which is important to the narrative of the trailer as well (more on this later). The voiceover is repeated three times over a montage of Gordon-Levitt working out, cleaning his apartment, driving, associating with his family, going to church, meeting his friends, kissing girls and viewing pornography on his laptop. Each time the montage and voiceover is faster, conveying the pumping rhythm of Gordon-Levitt’s life and the ease and pleasure he derives from it. What more could anyone ask for?
In a romantic comedy, of course, a romantic partner, or else where would we be? Such a figure enters the trailer during the third reiteration in the form of Scarlett Johansson, looking unbelievably sexy (and doesn’t she always?).
If you watch the trailer repeatedly, her character’s name becomes visible, but for the purposes of the trailer her name isn’t important – she’s Scarlett, she’s sexy, and she literally stops Gordon-Levitt’s world in the third reiteration of his priorities. She is the disturbance to his established world, and the rest of the trailer demonstrates the disruption that she causes.
What is most striking about the trailer is its knowingness towards its audience, as this movie trailer refers to other movies, Johansson’s character asking Gordon-Levitt if he likes movies. This is followed by a brief sequence of them going to the cinema, complete with shots of popcorn being scooped, and then watching a romantic film featuring (I think) Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. Gordon-Levitt’s voiceover cynically derides the romance, ‘the pretty boy, the pretty girl, the romantic ending’, which contrasts with Johansson’s enraptured face. Cut to the cinema lobby, after the film, and Johansson gushes about how much she loves ‘movies like that’. Gordon-Levitt agrees, and they share a romantic kiss straight out of a movie. So the trailer suggests an interest in people’s responses to movies, including those who are watching this trailer itself.
Responses to movies form the drama of the trailer, as Johansson is appalled at Gordon-Levitt watching porn, to which he retorts that the movies she likes are ‘stupid’. Johansson protests that romantic films and porn are different, citing as a reason: ‘they give awards for movies’; but as Gordon-Levitt points out, ‘they give awards for porn too’ (which is true). With this conflict-which-is-tension-which-is-drama set up, the stage is set for this couple to quarrel, probably break up, and probably get back together, based on the conventions of the genre. The trailer also indicates the likely development of Gordon-Levitt’s character, as Julianne Moore advises him of the value of change, and his voiceover also considers changing. The viewer familiar with romantic movies can assume that Gordon-Levitt will fall in love with Johansson, change his ways, and become a better person as a result of this romantic union. Whether this is how the film actually plays out remains to be seen – while it is full of interesting details, it does not go so far as to spoil the film. But the trailer does play upon the viewer’s understanding of the romantic genre, and demonstrates its own understanding of both the genre and the resultant audience expectations.
The trailer also emphasises the talent, highlighting that this is THE FIRST FILM WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT. Interestingly, it does not list him as the star, although the names SCARLETT JOHANSSON and JULIANNE MOORE do appear. Nonetheless, the star-writer/director is very prominent, suggesting a further acknowledgement that the viewer will either know who Gordon-Levitt is, or associate his name with the cut to his face after his name as writer-director. So across its duration, the trailer forms an association with its audience, in terms of the shared knowledge both of its talent and its genre.
A completely different association may be formed between the viewer and the film itself, which may not emphasise its genre as much as the trailer does. Indeed, reports indicated fears that, when submitted to the MPPA, the film would be rated NC-17, a rating that tends to harm box office performance (reports also mention that the film was recut, but not whether this cutting was to secure an R rating). Perhaps the film as a whole will be more concerned with sex-based pratfalls and a portrayal of family and community than highlighting the similarities between romantic movies and pornography and whether its protagonist wants to live in one or the other. I’ll find out when I see it, but as a text in its own right, Don Jon’s trailer invites an interesting and very knowing engagement with its viewer.