WARNING: This film contains explicitly sexual scenes. Please watch responsibly.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first foray into directing, “Don Jon,” has received a mixed critical response. Some have found it inspiring; some believe it unfairly stereotypes men, women, or both; and some (entirely missing the intended point of the film) categorize it merely as a “funny sex comedy.”
Gordon-Levitt’s swaggering, sexually charged character Don Jon begins the movie by bluntly describing his life, and his porn habits, in detail. He emphasizes that “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.” The rhythmic, choppy nature of this and many other lines of dialogue echoes the impatient pace of Jon’s life. He seeks pleasure and entertainment in small, controllable doses. Jon speaks possessively of everything he values in life; their only importance is in relation to him: my, my, my. The use of the word “things” is also repeated throughout the movie; another important recurring line is his declaration that Barbara Sugarman, the love interest played by Scarlett Johansson, is “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Ironically, many other characters in the film find that line to be romantic; the objectifying word is ignored because it is obscured by the praise.
However, Jon is not the only imperfect character; everyone in this film portrays some element of a flawed human nature. Barbara manipulates Jon in order to try to make him into the perfect romantic hero who, in her eyes, would give “up everything for her,” just like the pretty romantic leads she sees in the movies she loves. Gordon-Levitt is not implying that sacrifice is a bad thing; however, both of these characters want any “sacrifice” to only be performed by the other party. In one scene, Jon is talking about cleaning his apartment – something he takes pride in – and Barbara interrupts him, irritated:
Barbara: Don't talk about vacuuming in front of me, come on!
Jon: Why, what's wrong?
Barbara: Why? Because it's not sexy, that's why!
Both Jon and Barbara value each other as objects; they want to ignore any element of the Other that does not fit into their carefully controlled idea of “sexiness.” One of the main criticisms this movie has faced is that it unfairly stereotypes men and women. However, Gordon-Levitt is not criticizing what he sees as actual archetypes of “male” or “female”; he is criticizing the superficial pop culture definitions of “masculinity” and “femininity” that Barbara and Jon are trying to fit into.
However, these are not the only perspectives presented in the film. One of the most important scenes occurs when Jon is talking to Esther, a woman in the night class he is taking, about porn vs. sex. Esther is surprised that a “good looking guy” like him has to resort to porn at all; how can he have trouble finding women? But no, Jon insists that porn is better because, for a few minutes, it makes “all the bull**** disappear.” This is sharply contrasted with his experience with actual sex, in which he is constantly calculating, constantly wondering: how could this be better? To Jon, this seems perfectly logical. However, Esther maintains that “losing yourself” can occur in actual sex if he stops being so “one-sided”; she says that “if you wanna lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person. It’s a two way thing.”
The idea of vulnerability and emotional, physical openness seems bizarre and impossible to Jon. He seems to wonder, why would anyone want to do that? However, in a series of incremental life decisions, he tries to remove his self-inflicted blinders and actually experience others as three-dimensional human beings. Jon finds this terrifying, difficult, frustrating, and exhausting. His life is not going to be “easy” just because he begins respecting others. However, he also ultimately finds it fills him with an exhilaration that is not carefully controlled, monitored, and measured. Ironically, until Jon begins to let go of his careful plan to maintain the maximum amount of “pleasure” in his life, he is not actually able to truly enjoy himself or find peace.
One of the most fascinating parallels drawn in the film is between Jon’s attitude toward religion and his attitude toward human relationships. Jon, a Catholic, goes to church every Sunday with his parents and sister. We see his family stare, glassy-eyed, throughout Mass; his sister texts furiously the entire time. We see a montage of stained glass windows, the Communion line, and the confessional that parallels, in its tone, the porn-related montages we see at the beginning of the film. Jon approaches his relationship with God the same way he approaches his relationship with women. He checks the boxes, dead-eyed, to get what he wants out of the relationship; he makes no attempt to interact at a deeper level, and his spiritual life is shallow and numb.
My main critique of the film is that the relationship in which Jon finds himself at the end of the story seems somewhat contrived. However, despite that, this film contains wonderfully smart commentary on an important, topical issue. It truly does attempt to portray, in a very blunt and human way, the painful consequences of objectifying others – and the liberating effects of trying to encounter others as three-dimensional, authentic human beings. I am very intrigued to see where Gordon-Levitt will go from here as a filmmaker.
1. Don Jon. Dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Perf. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza. Voltage Pictures/HitRecord Films, 2013.