Don Jon, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s writing and directing debut, is a skittering and sweet film filled with humor, heat, and heart. At once openly satiric and disarmingly sincere, the movie manages to be both funny and touching, sometimes in the same instant.
The title character prefers porn to real-life sex, even after meeting and—finally, after weeks of patience—sleeping with Barbara, a “dime” or perfect ten on his scale, played superbly by a gum-chewing Johansson with the thickest of Joisey accents. The moment Jon locks eyes with this young woman, in a teeming club her scorching red dress seems determined to set ablaze, he’s gone, failing to understand he is no longer the hunter but the prey, a wild animal quickly to be tamed, disciplined, and domesticated.
But let’s return to that list for a moment. For an enumeration of all the things the character holds dear, there’s a whole lot of me and mine; the items on the list become markers, perhaps even trophies of an obsessively cultivated narcissism. Porn is just the most obvious form of selfishness and self-fulfillment, but everything he rattles off speaks to a culture of objectification—not just of women, but of social values and institutions as well—that undermines any capacity for real intimacy. Levitt’s character is full of himself, but fundamentally empty.
Looking like a “Jersey Shore” castaway with his pumped physique, slicked-back hair, and tight jeans, Jon submits to a certain societal construction of what constitutes appropriate appearance as much as the women he rates. (And it’s horrifying to think for what percent of the American male populace a man like Jon Martello is the living dream).
The character dutifully goes to confession every week, where he enumerates with perfect precision how many times he has had sex out of wedlock and how many he’s watched porn in the past seven days, the latter always well into the double digits. The gym becomes his other place of worship, where he builds his body like a temple to his own self-centeredness. The two practices are linked as the character duly incorporates his prayer-reciting penance into his workout routine—one Hail Mary for each bench press, one Lord’s Prayer for each pull-up.
While the film luxuriates in the character’s addiction, it also proposes a cure in the form of fellow night-school student Esther (Julianne Moore), an unexpected confidante whose frankness encourages discussion and perhaps a reappraisal of perspective, a partial awakening. Moore spins a small role into the film’s soul and the most memorable part of it. “Excuse me, were you watching people fucking?” the older woman asks, in a spirit of unassuming amusement and curiosity rather than moral judgment, after interrupting Jon’s phone-supplied reverie.
Of course porn is not the real issue—at times it seems like nothing more than a thin plot device to produce some sort of character evolution; the problem runs much deeper. Don Jon questions the most basic ways we live our lives and the constructed fantasies, illusions, and delusions that we all willingly and eagerly embrace.
Barbara is as addicted to fantasy as Jon. The Hollywood romances she holds in such high regard reduce human relationships to commercial transactions as much as pornography does, and they create equally unrealistic—although more socially acceptable—expectations. One of Don Jon’s best bits involves a movie-within-a-movie scenario featuring a horrendous Nicholas Sparks sendup called Special Someone starring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum, “the pretty woman” and “the pretty man,” both exaggerated clichés of love-crazed morons. It’s all ridiculous, of course, but if that movie actually existed, you can bet it’d make upwards of eight digits at the box office opening weekend.
Storybook romances and hardcore porn are not the only fabricated illusions under scrutiny, however. Don Jon is deeply concerned with the cultural and media images surrounding us and the way they shape our perception of the world and our interactions in it. Unreal and unrealistic imagery and expectations, empty entertainment and the societal demands they create seem poised to replace all traditional, humanizing values.
Telling perhaps are the scenes involving Jon’s parents, played by Tony Danza and Glenne Headley as walking stereotypes, but ones with warm, beating hearts. Jon’s sister, Monica (Brie Larson) spends her entire screen appearance plugged into varied social media outlets; her one line of dialogue, however, singles her out as perhaps the one person on screen who sees things the way they are.
As Jon’s mother bustles in the kitchen while his caveman, loud-mouthed father waits at the table, offering high praise for Jon’s new “piece of ass,” it becomes clear that machismo is handed down from one generation to the next in the Martello clan. Communication in this bloodline has been replaced by rituals based in either sports or faith—the Martellos attend Mass every Sunday, followed by a family meal in which any semblance of conversation is drowned out by the all-encompassing sound of television football and the abundant and animated swearing of the head of the family.
Levitt has managed to make a winsome feel good movie criticizing so many things that make us feel good, rom-coms and porn alike. Don Jon is an easily digestible, broadly accessible film about a serious phenomenon. It’s the comedic, mainstream version of Steve McQueen’s Shame, an art house exploration of sex obsession that was almost too painful to watch but impossible to turn away from.
Don Jon’s explicit, exuberant narration, although energetically and for the most part tastefully illustrated, lays it on a bit thick at times—the movie’s favorite cutaway shot is of a used Kleenex landing in the trash can—just like its title character, but, also like him, has enough swagger and wit to get away with it. By the end of the film Jon is taking baby steps towards recovery; Levitt takes creative leaps.