Don Jon is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s feature debut as both a writer and a director, an odd romantic comedy about a young womaniser from Brooklyn who tries to wean himself off porn after he gets a real, flesh and blood girlfriend. It has things to say about how men use pornography but how deep into this difficult subject is Gordon-Levitt willing to go?
Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes to clubs and takes a woman, never less than an 8 out of 10, home every time. However, sexual intercourse is always unfulfilling to him since he has developed an addiction to porn. As a result of this addiction, his ideas about sex are grossly unrealistic if not selfish and misogynistic. To his friends (Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke), however, he is a god and he likes the way they think. Until he spots Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a 10 or ‘dime’, who doesn’t fall for his practised, over-confident advances. It may well be love but how does their relationship compare with his porn habit?
Early on, the film offers a fast-paced introduction to Jon’s lifestyle, full of editing and camera tricks. It is also surprisingly fearless in its representation of porn, which is not used for easy laughs, but tackled with a degree of realism and seriousness. Nor is it immediately represented as particularly damaging, though one’s level of scepticism towards Jon’s self-justifying voiceover will probably depend on one’s own feelings about pornography. Don Jon is about what men use porn for, rather than the nature of porn itself, and as a result it may be queasily recognisable to some men.
The film also offers, albeit briefly, an alternative reading of romantic Hollywood films, suggesting that they are a kind of porn as well. Instead of offering instant sexual gratification, Hollywood films offer an idealised version of love and self-sacrifice which, as Don Jon suggests, may be just as damaging to one’s sense of reality. Barbara loves cheesy films but cannot come to terms with the fact that Jon likes porn – or that he does his own housework - suggesting that one idealised form is just as incompatible as the other. Hence, while Jon is disappointed with sexual intercourse, Barbara is disappointed by their relationship. However, if realism and an emotional openness are advocated as the best way towards a healthy relationship – as they are in Cassavetes’ similarly themed Minnie and Moskowitz - there is little hint of this in the film, which ends somewhere close to the romantic Hollywood standard.
Don Jon has ideas that make sense but it does not look at them in any depth. The idea of pornography having a Hollywood equivalent is vaguely drawn and left inconclusive. Similarly, the film ends very quickly and easily; making Jon’s problem seem like one that was very easy to shrug off and, hence, not really a problem. Jon finds happiness in a “real” relationship – a real relationship in movie terms rather than in terms of reality – too suddenly, without difficultly or jeopardy and without any long-term effects. It ends up being just as convincing as Jon’s feeble attempts to justify his porn habit at the beginning of the film. Also, Jon’s misogyny, very clear in the early part of the film, is left unaddressed. Ultimately, Don Jon comes to resemble a morality tale – one that has something valid to say about the effects of pornography but which uses the conservative language of true love to advocate something equally unrealistic.
Undercutting the film’s serious intentions further is Gordon-Levitt’s use of caricature. His family (Tony Danza, Glenne Headly and Brie Larson) seems like something out of an outrageous sitcom, constantly shouting, swearing excessively and always close to fistfights. Meanwhile Jon’s antics while on a night-out or his aggressive driving are far from subtly drawn and often simply played for laughs. Nearly every actor overacts, clearly with the impression that the film was supposed to be more flamboyant and silly than Gordon-Levitt really intended. The only serious performance comes from Julianne Moore, and feels, like the character, out of place. As a drama, it is exaggerated, which makes the happy but serious pro-romance ending all the more ill fitting, especially since it looks as light and insubstantial as the pointedly light and insubstantial beginning. Heartfelt drama isn’t really part of this film’s repertoire. And though the film is funny, it is not funny enough throughout to make up for the underdeveloped dramatics.
Don Jon is a surprisingly confident debut from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his choice of subject matter displays a bravery and wealth of ideas. It is very possible that his next film will be much better, and much more concentrated. As it stands, Don Jon is a diverting entertainment but rather feeble as a warning about the effects of pornography or as a drama about unrealistic expectations.
See also: Lovelace