Title: Don Jon
Written By: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (writer, director)
Publication Info: September 2013
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Don Jon is one of those movies that is so well crafted that when you get to the end, you want to jump right back to the beginning and watch it again. It’s an uncomfortable movie, but it’s funny and it’s touching and thoughtful, and incredibly well structured, and all the actors seem to behaving the time of their lives.
There are tons of spoiler-free reviews online but this is not one of them. Spoilers ahead.
The plot is this: Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a New Jersey guy who cares about the following:
“There's only a few things I really care about in life. My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn.”
When Jon meets Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, he gets serious, but problems arise (no pun intended) when he can’t give up his porn addiction. All this makes for awkward viewing, but also for a lot of comedy and above all some pretty amazing stuff about fantasy, reality, objectification of women, and what people want out of relationships.
Some scenes are wonderful just because you can sit back and let these pro actors do their stuff, and they seem thrilled to speaking these lines. Scarlett Johansson purrs like a cat, she tosses around F-bombs like they represent Shakespearean dialogue, and she utters the line, “What? You don’t think I could make you happy if I wanted to?” with such self-assurance that a hush fell over the theater as we all paused to take that in. A moment like that deserves respect. And the scenes where a rather stoned Jon and Esther (Julianne Moore) have bullshit free conversations are just amazing. In a movie in which everyone is showing some sort of false façade, these moments of honesty were breath-taking.
So much of this movie is about objectifying women – the porn, of course, but also constant touches of dialogue, like the way Jon refers to “my girls”, and the ‘romantic’ story of how his parents met:
“Do you know what he said when he saw me? He said, 'She’s mine.'”
It’s also pointed out that while “porn” as Jon thinks of it may be restricted to his computer (and, later, his phone, leading to much hilarious commentary by Esther), the objectification and hyper-sexualization of women’s bodies is all around. Jon tries to give up porn only to be sidelined by the covers of the fashion magazines in the grocery stores. Jon and his father stare, hypnotized, at a lascivious fast food commercial on TV. And people are constantly trying to fill voids with some sort of external stimuli – the dad with football, Barbara with movies, the sister with the smartphone, and Esther with pot and sex.
But the women in this movie all steal the show, by starting off as archetypes and, oh wow, big surprise – actually turning out to be people. OK, the mom is a mom. Not a ton of layers there, although she gets one badass moment. The sister has one line. ONE LINE. And with it she just transforms the entire movie. She changes its plot and its message with a few seconds of looking up from her smartphone.
And yeah, Barbara does try to make Jon into the man she wants him to be, and she doesn’t love him for who he is. She is wrong for trying to control him. But she’s not entirely wrong for urging Jon towards a committed relationship and going to college, as his best friend points out. And she’s not wrong for demanding honesty from her partner. She’s a deeply flawed person but she’s neither a cardboard villain nor a perfect romantic prospect. Meanwhile, Esther is an older, earthy woman with life lessons to impart, but she’s not some magical being – she’s really messed up in her own way. People are complicated.
A lot of times I get really angry at the suggestion that people can’t separate out reality from fantasy because the message is usually delivered in a patronizing way. I didn’t feel condescended to by Don Jon. I felt interested. But I felt a little let down by the notion, which is brought up a couple times but never fully explored, that romantic comedy movies have warped Barbara’s expectations as much as porn has warped Jon. The way Barbara sees it, these movies show that a man’s job is to sacrifice for ‘his’ woman, and her job is to reward a man with sex, but only if he is ‘worthy’.
But I don’t think that’s always true in movies – certainly its not true in romance novels (which aren't addressed in the movie). What I see, at least what I see in movies I like, is that the man and woman each give something, each compromise. I wasn’t insulted but I was puzzled because it seemed so incomplete, like maybe parts of that theme were left on the cutting room floor. Maybe Barbara missed the point of those movies. Maybe she’s just watching the absolutely shittiest ones. At any rate, if they were going to go there, I wish they had explored the topic more thoughtfully.
I do think its fair to say that most romantic comedy movies have very little to do with the daily grind of real life. Hence Barbara’s insistence that Jon won’t clean when they move in together because they will hire a housekeeper. “Vacuuming isn’t sexy”, she says, and romantic movies seem to agree. Honey, let me tell you, a man who likes to clean is a wonderful thing. Jon likes it that porn has no mess, and Barbara likes it that in romantic movies there is no mess, although they are thinking of different kinds of messes.
I have one big gripe. Ultimately, Jon kicks his porn habit and discovers love – not necessarily forever love, but love – deep caring for and about someone other than himself. Did I miss something about his process? Did he just quit porn because of the power of love? Because addiction doesn’t work that way. I don’t know much about porn addiction as opposed to alcohol and drug addiction, but you can’t just love someone out of their heroin habit and I assume that porn addiction is much the same. I think there might have been some stuff going on that either I missed or that was supposed to be happening off-screen, as one of Jon’s encounters is pretty clearly an amends. Whether he’s worked out that he needs to do an amends because he’s in a twelve-step program or whether he worked it out on his own I don’t know, and I would have liked to know a little more about his process so that the ending was more believable. It makes a tidy movie to suggest that Jon is cured by love, but it's a hell of an irresponsible message to send out there to the world’s enablers and codependents.
Be advised that while much of this dialogue is leading to clever insights, the dialogue itself mostly consists of “fuck” and “shit”. And it’s a movie about a guy who sleeps around a lot and watches porn all the time, so expect a lot of sex, and a lot of clips of pornography that were just carefully edited enough to avoid an NC-17 rating. Being of a prudish nature, I was a little embarrassed to watch the movie, especially in a room full of other people.
But the longer the movie went on the more I realized that it really isn’t about porn. It’s about the radical notion that women (and men) are people, and the radical notion that making emotional connections with people is important. When I left this movie, I didn’t feel romantic, but I felt…happy. I appreciated my friends and my family. I appreciated the imperfections that fill my life and the human connections that I have. I thought this was an original, funny, well-crafted, thoughtful movie.
Don Jon is in theatres in the US now, and you can find out if it's playing near you at MovieTickets.com or Fandango. Entertainment Weekly also has a review, E! Online has a round up of reviews, and EW's last issue featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the cover.