Do Not See Don Jon (But if You Do, You May Never Look at Porn Again)
- Shawn McEvoy Managing Editor, Crosswalk.com
- 2013 9 Sep
DVD Release Date: December 31, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: September 27, 2013
Rating: R (for graphic sexual content and dialogue, nudity, language, and some drug use)
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headley, Brie Larson, Jeremy Luke, Rob Brown
Editor's Note: This review contains frank discussion of mature subject matter. Parents please be advised. Additionally, multiple spoilers are mentioned.
Let's get this out of the way up front: this is not going to be our usual movie review. Quite simply, it can't be.
Nor will I recommend the experience, the sights and sounds of this hard-R examination of today's porn-addicted 20-something males, to the Crosswalk audience. From the opening montage that lays bare our society's objectification of women, through the non-stop nasty language spoken by the main character's friends and New York Italian family, to the unbelievable amount of times Jon claims to masturbate in a given week, to the role marijuana and 'proper' fornication play in the outcome, this movie offends. No two ways about it.
But we are going to take the opportunity to talk about the subject matter addressed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut, because - and this is not an endorsement of Don Jon - there are those in our society and, statistics soberingly say, our Church, who need to take a long, hard look in the mirror at the issues within. And when I use the metaphor of a mirror, it is no mistake, because the best thing Don Jon does is reveal how narcissism - extreme self-love and a disability to truly love others - is at the root of pornographic addiction.
Let's begin by considering what's on the screen. I know several friends and co-workers who admit to some degree of confusion over this film, partially because the trailers are cut in such ways that some see a romantic comedy (ala previous "Don Juan" films), some see a laugh-along raunch-fest, and some people seem to anticipate a message movie. The truth is a mixture of all of the above, while also yanking the rug out from each genre a bit (more on that later).
Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt, The Dark Knight Rises) is a bartender who cares deeply for several things: his body, his apartment, his muscle car, his family, his Church (he's Catholic, and attends mass and confession faithfully), his friends, his one-night stands, his porn... and the dead-end life he's trapped in but incapable of knowing it. He's probably angry, judging by the many scenes in which we see the way he drives, but he wouldn't describe himself that way. He's got a killer smile, a tractor-beam stare, a streak of never going home without the company of a woman who grades out as at least an '8,' and the envy of his two friends. Direction? Future? Who needs those. Jon has no reason to even stop to consider such things.
Until, that is, he locks eyes with the first legitimate '10' of his life, Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, The Avengers). And it is at this point I must digress: Loving the work of Ms. Johansson as I do, and conditioned to believe the aforementioned trailers were leading me down the rom-com road before I ever saw the film, I was planning to write part of this review about the positive influences good women have on childish men. I know, I was one of them (a childish man, not a good woman). From the way the old Bryan Duncan song "Mr. Bailey's Daughter" resonated with me ("she's got me singin' in the choir / volunteering my time for free") to the way Jack Nicholson made Helen Hunt swoon with the words, "You make me want to be a better man" in As Good as it Gets, this motif has been prevalent and expected. And sure enough, Jon has to work to score with Barbara. She's different from all the rest. As we meet her, the thought, "Good message here: this is what can happen when you have a girl who knows how worthwhile she is" goes through my head. How misdirected I was, and how much I enjoyed that fact.
Because Gordon-Levitt's chief directorial tool beneath all the horribly offensive shenanigans of Don Jon is Varying Expectations (spoiler alert!). We believe the woman will change the man. Because of course we know (wow do we know) Jon needs to be changed, and we need to think he can be saved. We think Barbara's the 10 Jon does. She gets him taking a night class at college, causes him to give up porn for a week. We think the right ending is him fighting for her instead of for his computer. But not only is she not the answer, she's as handicapped (in Jon's vernacular, he uses the word "retarded" several times in the film, and sure enough, the word applies here to describe the stunted growth of these milennial leads) as he is in a less morally vacuous way. We get why she is hurt when she discovers her man's secret, that he has lied to her, and that he finds her insufficient for his physical "needs." But what this movie slyly allows us to discover is not only that Barbara Sugarman is not Jon's savior, but she in fact has her own flawed agenda (and it's beautiful the way we and Jon and his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headley) learn this through Jon's sister's only spoken lines in the whole movie).
The romantic comedies Barbara loves are just as incorrect as our assumption that we are watching one, and almost as fake as Jon's pornography: while Jon does need to change, her motives to change him are for herself. We get a clue when she overreacts negatively to the fact he cleans his own apartment, because to do so is the work of maids. Barbara is, for all her good points, a Princess - a role we come to consider is just as narcissistic as the iron-pumping, hot-rod-driving, scorecard-keeping, hair-gelling alpha male. Such individuals can not, ultimately, cure what ails each other. And in the end, only one of them can change because only one of them finds the right ingredients to get past denial and gain wisdom and meaning from life.
In Don Jon, those elements come from Esther (Julianne Moore, a veteran of several films dealing with questions of porn, nudity and infidelity (Boogie Nights; The Big Lebowski; Crazy, Stupid Love)), an older student Jon meets in his class. She's odd, and she is the only character in the movie who, for all her quirks, talks sanely and in a relaxed manner. Reason: she's broken. So is everyone else, but Esther knows she is.
Honesty and brokenness are the best things about Don Jon. They are key to healing, growing, gaining wisdom. It is nearly impossible to sit through the depravity and edginess of this film, but reality tells us such lives really exist. Do they have hope? This film wants us to believe they do.
But as I said earlier, that is not an endorsement. There is just too much disturbing imagery and language in Don Jon to recommend it. There are also some interesting but possibly offensive parallels, such as the clean slate of Catholic confession being subtly equated to the wiping of an internet browser's history, and the fact that the wisdom and love of the finale are still cloaked in unbiblical solutions.
Good points? Well, supposing that several of the people who flock to the theaters to see the film this weekend are porn-addicted men suffering from narcissism, there are obvious lessons they won't be able to help but take home. Speaking for myself, despite the fact I do not have a pornography addiction, this movie would be enough to never tempt me into one. It's never boring, it's relevant, it's pertinent. Religion plays its part. Hypocrisy is exposed. Truth and answers come from someone who has maturity, wisdom, and has experienced real suffering -- things that today's generation tend to discount as undesirable or unimportant. In a cinematic landscape seemingly bent upon glorifying man-boys and raunch, Don Jon cranks the latter up to 10 in effort to undermine the whole industry by showing how vain and meaningless it is... and how 'the right woman' isn't the cure we moviegoers like to believe she always is.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoliers):
- Language/Profanity: multiple uses of the f-word, s-word, and God's name in vain
- Drinking/Smoking: Jon is a bartender, and many scenes take place in clubs, where drinking is prevalent; cigarettes, especially the marijuana variety, play a key role in the film's second half
- Sex/Nudity: no full-frontal or male nudity, but just about everything else (since this is a movie about porn addiction); several characters have sex; sexual positions are discussed and graded
- Violence/Crime: Jon punches a car window of another motorist
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: Jon attends mass and confession regularly; multiple trips to the confesson box are shown; Jon does his Our Fathers and Hail Marys between breaths as he works out at the gym; morality is never discussed, but clearly relative in the world these characters live
Publication date: September 27, 2013