Review: Don Jon (2013)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon exposes pornography as a serious and potentially damaging habit without characterizing it as a vice. Something of a twenty-first-century morality tale, the film dissociates itself from traditional sexual morals, while still uncovering and condemning the habitual use of pornography as an addictive and adverse activity.

This sounds heavy, right? To his credit and our pleasure, Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut manages to explore pornography’s effect on modern masculinity in the form of a brisk and smart rom-com.

The choice of genre sets the moral development of Jon Martello (played by Gordon-Levitt) within the familiar trajectory of a romantic comedy. Jon’s life is set up as a collection of routines established as firmly as the muscles he loves to sculpt at the gym. He regularly hits the club with his boys and, after rating the girls around them, invariably heads home with at least “an eight.” On Sundays, he catalogues his sexual sins in the confession box before having dinner with his family. Yet in spite of his talent to hook up with attractive women, Jon habitually watches porn, even sneaking out of the arms of his latest catch in bed to go browse for pics and vids on his laptop in the other room. Nothing is better than porn, Jon assures us. Porn combines maximum hotness with zero effort. How could a real woman compete? Or so he thinks until he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), the young woman he rates as “a nine” but who won’t sleep with him right away. Julianne Moore is the wise older woman who helps him to grow.

To say anything more would give away the interesting directions Gordon-Levitt takes this familiar story about a guy with a character flaw who needs the right woman to change him. Modifications are made, but the overall shape still fits the romantic comedy mould. Gordon-Levitt’s alterations of the formula also work to associate other aspects of our culture, such as the romance industry or acquisitive views of marriage, with pornography. All three create unhealthy illusions about love and sex. Thus, porn is only the most indicative variety of modern selfishness and superficiality in the film.

But in Don Jon, pornography is paradoxically both superficial and deep-set. In the eyes of the habitual user, women become an assemblage of sexual objects and actions—tits, ass, blowjobs, money shots, to borrow the vocabulary of Jon’s voice-over—while the activity eats away at those areas of life beneath the surface of things, leaving only the superficial in place. As Jon repeats throughout the film, he only cares about his body, his pad, his car, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. The real problem, the film argues, is how Jon cares, and which aspects of these things he cares about. We should probably be concerned, though, with how Jon describes all these things as “his.” Pornography becomes emblematic of a host of issues debilitating modern relationships, all of them selfishly motivated, all of them eating away at heart and feeling and a conception of sex as a mutual activity aimed at the loss of the self in the other.

Superficiality extends into Jon’s engagement with his church. Though he dutifully attends mass and confession every Sunday, church is just another part of his weekly routine. Gordon-Levitt appropriately shows Jon reciting his penitential prayers while working out. As Jon develops, he loses interest in a church that views sex outside of wedlock—no matter the mutuality and connection achieved—as sin, the same as porn. Some viewers may approve of Gordon Levitt’s point, while others may complain that he has reduced confession to a superficial habit. It seems to me that Gordon-Levitt is cautiously trying to keep his criticism of superficial modern sex from being an endorsement of traditional sexual values.

To his credit, JGL seems to possess an intelligent command of the tools of filmmaking. His ability can be seen in the montage during the opening credits or the Requiem for a Dream-style rapid, repetitive editing that signals the addictive nature of Jon’s consumption of pornography.

While it falters at times, Don Jon is a commendable and entertaining examination of pornography and its shaping of a kind of twenty-first-century masculinity. Porn may be mainstream nowadays, but that doesn’t mean we have to think of it as necessarily healthy or unquestionably good. How we talk about porn, though, tends to mirror how we talk about sex, which is the focal point of the so-called culture wars. In my experience, this makes people anxious to either identify as “for” or “against” porn. Sidestepping polarized debate, Don Jon is less concerned with whether watching porn is right or wrong, and more with how and why we watch and the effects it has on us.

All of this makes Gordon-Levitt’s debut both an interesting approach to a current issue and a fresh take on a tired genre.

7 out of 10

Don Jon (USA, 2013)

Written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt; starring Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, and Julianne Moore.