Watching “Don Jon”
“Don Jon” is one of the better romantic comedies I’ve seen in a while, though it’s probably worth pointing out that this is a pretty dreary genre, and that the bar is not set particularly high. In fact, one of “Don Jon’s” selling points is that it pokes fun at romantic comedies, and even features scenes from a fake romantic comedy starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. Much has been made of this film’s focus on porn, but it might be at its best when it deconstructs the gender stereotyping typical of the Hollywood romantic comedy.
“Don Jon” is the directing debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of my favorite young actors. He also plays the lead, a shallow New Jersey boy whose prowess at picking up women has earned him the nickname Don Jon. But Don Jon has a secret: As much as he likes having sex with real women, he likes masturbating to porn even better, because the women in porn will do anything, and real women will not. Several scenes show him sneaking out of bed as his latest conquests sleeps, booting up his computer and getting off to a pornographic video. In addition to sex and porn, Don Jon is a clean freak who works out compulsively and never misses confession at his local parish. For the most part, he’s an incredibly boring person with little in the way of thoughts, ideas or an inner life; one of Gordon-Levitt’s feats is making Don Jon a character we feel like watching for 90 minutes.
Don Jon’s routine begins to change when he meets a beautiful woman at a club named Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson). Soon after, he tracks her down, declares his love for her and embarks on a semi-serious relationship. But there’s trouble from the get-go: When Barbara catches him watching porn, she makes him vow to stop watching porn forever, which he finds impossible to do. Also, Barbara is constantly dragging him to romantic comedies and seems to want to better him: She asks him to take a college course, so that he can one day leave his bartending job behind, and tells him he’s a loser because he cleans his own apartment. Since cleaning his apartment is one of the few things Don Jon genuinely enjoys, this is a real affront.
Meanwhile, a second woman has entered Don Jon’s life: An older classmate named Esther (Julianne Moore). After Don Jon and Barbara SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! break up, Don Jon and Esther have sex in the parking lot at school and smoke pot together. As torrid as this might sound, their conversation afterward is more intimate and personal than anything Don Jon and Barbara ever said to each other, and marks the beginning of Don Jon’s awkward steps into true manhood. He eventually gives up porn, because he has finally found a person he can connect to through sex. In other words, he discovers what real love is all about, and learns that caring about other people, and their needs and desires, is worthwhile and fulfilling.
One of the most interesting things about “Don Jon” is how, for all its racy content, the film actually has a fairly traditional, moralistic message. It implies that the media-saturated landscape in which we now live is damaging — that the prevalence of pornography, the vacuousness of romantic comedies, the ubiquitousness of social media and the sheer volume of advertising we encounter is making it harder for us to build meaningful relationships.
“Don Jon” isn’t necessarily wrong about any of this, but the film’s worldview isn’t particularly nuanced. It suggests that Don Jon is a better person when he gives up watching porn, but doesn’t seem willing or able to address thornier questions, such as whether it’s possible to watch some porn and have a meaningful relationship, as many people do, if surveys showing how many millions of Americans watch porn are any indication. Since “Don Jon” is a romantic comedy, perhaps the film’s feel-good, life-is-better-without-porn ending doesn’t matter all that much, but I felt that it was overly facile — that the movie ultimately failed to explore issues of dating and sex and porn with as much complexity as promised.
My other issue concerns Esther. I couldn’t help but wonder why a worldly woman such as Esther would be at all interested in Jon. It was easy for me to see why he might be interested in her — after all, she’s played by the luminous Julianne Moore. Jon, in comparison, has little to offer. However, Esther is an important character — the catalyst, really, for Jon’s emotional growth. So her role is necessary, though perhaps too underdeveloped.
All of the film’s performances are good: Johansson, Gordon-Levitt and Moore all have a nice chemistry, and Brie Larson shines as Don Jon’s sullen sister.
As a film, “Don Jon” is not completely successful, but it is a fun and pleasant diversion that gives viewers something to think about. It’s a promising start to Gordon-Levitt’s directing career, and it will be fun to see what he does next.
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