Synopsis: Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a handsome, good old-fashioned guy known as Don Jon for his ability to bed beautiful women at will. But ironically, even the finest fling doesn’t compare to the bliss Jon finds alone-watching porn on his computer. Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) is a gorgeous, good old-fashioned girl raised on romantic movies, and she’s determined to find her Prince Charming. Wrestling with expectations of the opposite sex, Jon and Barbara struggle against false fantasies to find true intimacy in this unexpected comedy written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Don Jon 7.5
eyelights: the cast. the performances. the sexy bits. the message.
eyesores: its repetitiveness. the abrupt ending.
“I don’t gotta say anything, I don’t gotta do anything. I just fucking lose myself.”
God, when I saw the trailers for this picture, I felt an immediate contempt for it: There’s nothing I hate more than a vanity project that finds its star making themselves look incredibly heroic, deep and/or sexy. It always feels like a desperate ego trip, or the product of some delusion on their part.
So when I heard of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, from a screenplay he wrote himself, and which stars himself as a playa who is sought after by, and hooks up with, a lot of women, I was incapable of suppressing my revulsion. “Get over yourself”, is all I could think. “Talk about wishful thinking!”
And even beyond that, the trailer made ‘Don Jon’ seem mundane, unoriginal.
But one of my bets friends saw it and recommended that I give it a chance. I don’t know if she was trying to send me a message, but I highly doubt it since I’m nothing of the player type. Nor a porn addict. Anyway, I decided to defer to her good judgment and pick it up from the library, source of all sorts of sexy stuff.
‘Don Jon’ tells the story of Jon, a superficial young man who not only has no time for a romantic relationship, he prefers masturbating to porn than having sex with women – something he does on average five times a week, anyway. As far as he’s concerned, he has his car, his weightlifting, his boys, and his family.
What more could he want or need?
Jon comes from a traditional blue collar family from the Bronx (headed by Tony Danza). They go to Church every Sunday and, afterwards, he and his dad wear sleeveless white undershirts at dinner while watching football. He has a seemingly extremely dull routine that is perked up by his regular sexual encounters.
His two buds call him The Don because of his success at picking women up when they go out. He’s so smooth, he invariably takes a girl home. But, one night, he’s turned down by a new girl (Scarlett Johansson). Although he dismissed her and picked up another girl, he eventually reconsiders and decides to track her down.
First they go out for lunch. Then the movies. He makes out with her, but she makes him wait. She’s a total tease: She rubs against him until he comes in his pants. But she won’t have sex. Soon he’s exclusively dating her – and he hasn’t had sex in a week! It was moving so quickly that I kept thinking it was just his fantasy.
After all this, even when they first have sex, he’s still not fully satisfied – he gets up while she’s sleeping to go masturbate. Naturally, he gets caught and she has a fit. So he tries to lie his way out of it, but she makes him promise to never watch porn again. For some reason she’s totally grossed out by porn. It’s not clear why.
It’s also not clear why, according to her, he shouldn’t be allowed to masturbate.
He continues anyway. A lot. But since she now spends more time at his place, he has to find new ways to do it and get away with it. So he goes mobile: He even watches porn in night class. But he gets caught again – this time by one of his classmates, an older woman (Julianne Moore) who came by to ask him a question.
Then comes the devolution of Jon’s relationship with Barbara, who goes through his computer and finds out that he hasn’t kept promise, and the growing friendship with Esther, who is grieving the loss of her family in an accident. From there develops a connection between the two classmates as they share each other’s pain.
And, eventually, pleasure.
While I still believe that ‘Don Jon’ is a vanity project, there were a few things that I quite enjoyed about it.
For one, I like that it discusses the role of pornography in our modern sexual identities. Is it objectionable in this day and age? And, if so, why? Is healthy or unhealthy? Are there forms of pornography that are healthier than others? And are any of them acceptable in the context of a romantic relationship?
I also like that it explores alternative relationship models, in that what Jon thought was a normal relationship with Barbara simply didn’t work for him. But he found something that did with an older woman who accepted his lifestyle and didn’t feel the need to encroach on it – much like he didn’t on her own.
I also enjoyed the fact that the moral of the picture is that the best sex is connected sex; it’s not just about getting off, it’s about “getting lost” in another person. Ultimately, the reason Jon was picking up random girls and wasn’t enjoying sex as much is because he didn’t know how to connect with people.
It stems from his relationships with his parents; his dad is a patriarchal hard-@$$ and their family isn’t very bonded. Jon learned to be very controlled, disciplined, distant – and this is why he could only feel release when he masturbated. So the picture’s not really about porn – porn was merely a symptom.
Where the picture stumbled is in trying to convey this message. My thought was that anyone who related to Jon probably wouldn’t see exactly what Gordon-Levitt was trying to say; they likely would feel that the ending is a cop out. They might even just get the message that they should avoid controlling women.
This may be partly due to the picture’s third act, which feels a bit rushed: As soon as Jon and Barbara separate, he’s back to his old ways, and then BOOM he and his classmate connect one night and a relationship is borne from that encounter. And then they’re both super happy (cue romantic montage) and the picture ends.
I think the message needed to be articulated better: Why is connection sweeter? Why was his relationship with Barbara poison? What’s the difference with Esther? What kind of quantifiable changes does it bring to their lives aside for being happier and feeling freer? And what role does porn play for him now? And why?
While ‘Don Jon’ isn’t an especially explicit film, there is some pretty candid narration from Jon about his sexual preferences and there are tons of inserts from various media, whether it be porn or sexualized media. It’s not a movie that one can watch in the presence of just anybody, and it’s certainly NSFW.
But, all told, ‘Don Jon’ was entertaining enough and could be thought-provoking to some degree. If anything, I think that it could be a good conversation starter with the right people. It’s not a standout picture but it does tackle a subject that few other films do, and it does it well enough to warrant a viewing.
I’m glad I finally gave it a chance.
Date of viewing: July 13, 2016