Review: “Don Jon” lays bare our unrealistic expectations

By on September 18, 2013

By Simon Isham —

Let’s talk about porn — dirty, nasty, raunchy triple-X action.

It is with this degree of frankness that Joseph Gordon-Levitt confronts the role of pornography in American culture as the titular character in his new film “Don Jon.”

The film was screened last night, released 10 days early as a part of a special promotion from Relativity Media. It was presented free of charge in the Floyd Theatre in the SAC, and on college campuses across the country.

“Don” Jon Martello earned his nickname from his ability to seduce any woman he chooses at the club; however, despite his successes with the opposite sex, he finds himself more satisfied by his right hand and laptop than by real female anatomy. He is in effect an updated version of the legendary 14th century playboy Don Juan, who was renowned for his irresistible charms, put against the backdrop of Italian-American New Jersey. Within the first ten minutes of the film, the modern Don is himself beguiled at the bar by the vindictive Barbara Sugarman, played by Scarlett Johansson. After Facebook stalking “the most beautiful thing (he has) ever seen in (his) life,” Jon secures a date with her. The two make plans to go to the movies.

As Jon and Barbara walk into the theater, it is unclear whether he has his new “dime” on his arm, or she has him wrapped around her finger. Jon is forced to accompany his new girlfriend to a chick-flick, hilariously parodied in “mise en abyme” form by Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. This breakaway affords Jon the ability to recount the standard “girl movie” recipe in a way reminiscent of the pilot episode of the ‘60s sitcom “Bewitched”: boy bumps into girl, they fall in love, there is a dramatic breakup, they make up, then get married.

But as Jon points out, matters are hardly ever that formulaic for real couples; Jon’s trouble begins when Barbara wakes to find him watching a porn video just after they have had sex. She denounces his actions as vile and disgusting, but he informs her that “every guy in the world watches porn.” She threatens to end the relationship if he does not hang up his habit, and he agrees to these demands.

Throughout the weeks to follow, Barbara and Jon become inseparable, and she is invited to meet Jon’s parents, Jon Sr. and Angela, played by Oscar-nominated actor Tony Danza and the immensely talented-but-under-appreciated actress Glenne Headly. The family and Barbara attend mass together the next morning, where Jon proudly announces to the priest in the confessional that he has had extramarital sex seven times in the past week, but has quit viewing porn.

It is in this myopic state of self-satisfaction that the film’s climax takes place. It is not a hyper-theatrical breakup scene filmed in the rain, as the RomCom trope expose might seem to indicate. Instead, it is a hushed altercation about cleaning products in a department store: Jon says he likes to keep his house clean, Barbara insists that such behavior in a man is not sexy.

This scene in particular demonstrates that writer-director-star Gordon-Levitt is as talented on camera as he is off, having both the wit of a master essayist and the visual expertise of a seasoned artist. The result is an audacious and compelling narrative about the unabashed consumption of a risque product. Indeed, the film provides a nearly holistic view of modern methods of accessing and attitudes towards porn — save for a few key considerations.

While “Don Jon” assails the realities of personal porn use and the objectification of women in the West with honesty and force, it skirts around the quintessential questions of whether porn is healthy, why and for whom. Jon never makes a crusade out of ending his addiction, but neither does he condone it whilst indulging it. That by the end of the movie he claims to be clean is only a sort of half-concession that his behavior was less-than-exemplary. And the film never takes a firm position on the clips of nude or nearly nude women which comprise roughly five percent of the footage; instead, it is left to the viewer to decide whether this is an acceptable portrayal of the human female.

As much as the film tells about women, it shows about men. The relatively small male cast of “Don Jon” obsess not only over the appearances of the women they aspire to have sex with, but also over their own appearances by dressing well and working out regularly. Additionally, Jon and Jon Sr., who are almost always pictured together wearing sleeveless shirts, are both extremely muscular, but each man’s right bicep is noticeably larger than his left, which suggests that Jon’s porn dependency might be inherited.

This idea gets at what may be the most poignant assessment “Don Jon” drags out into the light: that unrealistic expectations for work, education and standard of living, along with sex, may be at the root of mainstream American values, which passed from generation to generation. What’s Don Jon’s solution? To seek gratification not through the superficial, but by immersing ourselves in one another.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tony Danza star in Relativity Media’s “Don Jon.” Photo courtesy / 

About Simon Isham

Simon Isham is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Louisville Cardinal, where he has worked since 2012. For his reporting at the Cardinal, he has won awards from the Kentucky Press Association and the Louisville chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He has also written for LEO Weekly and Insider Louisville. He graduated in December 2014.

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