Other Media Review

Movie Review: Don Jon

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Title: Don Jon
Written By: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (writer, director)
Publication Info: September 2013
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Don Jon Poster showing close up of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and one word reviews from various media outlets all positiveDon 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. 

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  1. 1
    redheadedgirl says:

    I looooved this movie.  I admit that part of it having grown up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and I’m just so happy seeing the kid from 3rd Rock successfully adult, but I also enjoyed the movie. 

    SPOILERS

    I mean, I will not be watching this with my parents, NO THANK YOU, but it was a fun character study of how the media can affect people. 

    I think Barbara’s interpretation of RomComs and how the man gives up everything for the woman is how she chooses to view it- she doesn’t like compromise, so she chooses not to see it.  And the whole scene with the swiffers was so funny and so uncomfortable. 

    I admit I was feeling super shifty about the relationship between Jon and Barbara, because of how she was manipulating him and molding him into the guy she wanted- I mean, going back to school and getting out of the “Service industry” were positive things, but these were prices he had to pay to sleep with her.  That ain’t cool. 

    I was also worried that Esther would turn out to be an aged-up Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but no, she wasn’t.  Sure, the wrap up wrapped up REALLY fast, but it also wasn’t the end of Jon’s story.  Is Esther The One?  Who knows?  It doesn’t matter.  He learned how to be a person and how to treat other people as people, too.  He stopped putting the crap in his hair.  It’s a start.

  2. 2
    SB Sarah says:

    Wait, he stops putting crap in his hair? Game over. (Kidding).

    I saw a discussion of the movie on a thread on Bitch Magazine’s FB page, with varying opinions on the movie. Some loved it, and some hated the message, felt it was demeaning toward women, and those that loved it debated that point for a bit. It was fascinating – and I’m always more curious when opinions are far apart from one another.

    I think this might be babysitter-expense-worthy, which is a rare thing. Usually I’m content to wait for the movie to end up on my cable box.

  3. 3
    tien says:

    Saw the movie last weekend.  I too am a huge fan of JGL and will watch pretty much anything (and he’s ROBIN – ala Batman).  Don Jon was engaging – sometimes uncomfortable (a few couples left the theater about 10 minutes into the movie) but it’s a smart and funny and deceptively thoughtful take on men/women romance/sex/porn and relationships with everyone around us.  It led to great post-movie dinner discussion with husband about everything discussed in the review.  Definitely worth a baby sitter. 

    BTW, i wonder what’s with the old fashioned names “barbara” and “esther”.  Any ideas?  and the sister’s one line was AWESOME!

  4. 4
    Fawn says:

    Okay…

    Speaking as someone who was (and is) dealing with a fondness for porn—yeah, addiction doesn’t work that way. I love my partner, I have no intention of leaving him, he is my sun-and-stars. But the continual draw of porn, of easy satisfaction and sensuality, doesn’t just go away when love enters the picture. And when stuff gets difficult, due to job issues or personal problems or even just a bad day when he’d rather play video games than listen to me vent, the urge to log onto my favorite site and let some pretty soul with an improbable name purr and pet my blues away is stupidly strong.

    I don’t blame Hollywood, I understand the desire to tie up a neat happy ending. But if porn is as big an issue in Don John’s life as the movie implies, love (even the love of Scarlett Johansen) isn’t going to magically make it go away.

  5. 5
    Jimthered says:

    My spoiler-free review of DON JON is up at the Armchair Critic http://thearmchaircritic.blogspot.com/  As for some spoiler-filled thoughts…

    I do wish how they explored how romantic movies can be as illusionary as porn.  This is NOT the same as romance novels: As Sarah wrote in her book, many romance novels deal with getting to know and understand one’s partner, not just falling in love/lust, getting married, and living happily ever after.  Most romantic comedies don’t bother with that, following the exact formula given in the fake rom-com from DON JON.

    I did mind the assumption that women are sexually boring and only like the missionary position while maintaining eye contact the whole time.  I think, from endless COSMOPOLITAN articles to the 50 SHADES phenomenon, that women are interested in creativity and what may feel better/best, not just some man-on-top sameness.

    The commercial they saw is a real ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zs1cgqX8FY

    I did think Barbara (Scarlett Johansson’s character) was a bit of a princess.  While it may be understandable that she was upset at Jon watching porn, she seemed equally upset that he cleaned his house, even deciding to send her maid there instead of listening to him when he said he took pride in doing it himself.  And at the movie’s end, when Jon is trying to say they both made mistakes, she seemed focused on his alone.  This could be because a woman that hot can become not just confident, but arrogant from her ability to get guys to do what they want.  (As for the idea that she just wanted him to do better, maybe—but imagine a man deciding a woman’s job wasn’t good enough, pressuring her to go back to school, and deciding what class she should take.  I don’t think the reaction would be so much “bettering” as “dominating” or “not respecting.”)

    And haven’t we learned from movies—especially ones with Silent Bob—that if a character is silent for almost a whole movie, near the end they’ll finally speak and say something profound?  Every… single… time…

  6. 6
    Ms. M says:

    I liked this movie tremendously, although I felt it was flawed. It seemed that Barbara’s discomforts with Jon’s choices were largely class-based- Barbara seemed to come from more money than Jon (the disdain for the service industry and cleaning; Tony Danza’s question about whether she was Jewish), which might imply that she could not find such a malleable white-collar guy. While I liked the whole story, I felt that Barbara’s character was reductive.

    I also was confused by the idea that women only liked missionary and eye-contact during sex, but then I remembered that he never had relationships, only one-night stands. I’ve never asked around, but I guess it’s possible that women might be less-adventurous with strangers? (Maybe?)

  7. 7
    CarrieS says:

    Re: missionary position – I was also thinking, “Huh, why doesn’t he just ask them if they’d be willing to try a different position?”  But remember that his objection to that position is that he has to see the person he is having intercourse with, and since since he doesn’t want or understand sexual intimacy this bothers him.  My guess is he uses the position thing as an excuse.  He might initiate that position every time, assuming that that’s what women want, and not wanting to change anything because it might actually get him into a relationship.

    SUPER SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!

    Re:  Barbara:  When Jon begins a relationship with Barbara, he is thrilled to discover the vending machine concept.  You know the one, right?  If you put enough kindness coins into a woman, then sex falls out.  He’s still treating Barbara as an object, and he’s still pursuing a goal – have orgasms, earn points with his family and his peers for dating a hot woman, and eventually do the socially expected thing of getting married and having babies.  None of that has anything to to with Baraara – she’s a tool.  She’s like his car.  He can use her to get from one place to another.

    The sad thing about Barbara is that she beleives this too, of herself.  Having accepted that she is a vending machine, she is determine to only accept currency she can use.  She also has goals, she also can use Jon to get to those goals, and she provides him with sex as a reward for him doing what she wants.  She’s smart and ambitious and in another context we might like someone who is so determined to reach her goals – but we don’t like her, because she is playing a game based on the premise that her lover can treat her like an object, and she can treat him like one as well.  Unlike Jon, she doesn’t grow, which is sad.  The reason I don’t find her charcter to be one that insults me, as a viewer is that I think JGL does a good job of showing the world that has shaped her and why she is the way she is, without defending her behavior.  She and Jon are both products of a sexist and materialistic environment.

    The reason Jon and Esther’s relationship is so important is that it is not goal based.  It’s not based on sex, although they have it.  It’s not based on getting married.  It’s based on being together as people.

     

  8. 8
    Jennifer Hayward says:

    I have to watch this movie now! :)

  9. 9
    etv13 says:

    I didn’t see it as Jon being redeemed or changed by love, just that he grew up a little.Iowa

  10. 10
    Amanda says:

    Let me just say…I saw this movie with two other people- a guy and a girl.  I’ve just recently become friends with the guy and we are in that whole “talking” but not dating phase.  There’s nothing physical (although I wouldn’t mind it, lol).  Anyway, watching this movie while sitting next to him in the theater was a bit odd.  There were some definite uncomfortable moments.

  11. 11

    Great review! The previews make it look so good so I appreciate the details. It’s about time Hollywood came out with something romantic, fresh and just humorous. I’m still a sucker for a good love story but it’s nice to not have a traditional romantic look

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