Written & Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Brie Larson & Tony Danza
His values in life are simple: his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and his porn. This is what initially defines Jon Martello Jr. (affectionately known as Don Jon and played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but, in reality, this list, or more specifically hierarchical pyramid, is in inverse order. Porn dictates his New Jersey life and the others fill in the gaps in their own systematic way.
We know this because of the film’s opening images, which consist primarily of lucid videos and photos of women with a particular physique in particularly explicit poses. This is Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut and it’s clear he has an ability to tell a story with both his actors and his camera. The motivation to direct seems obvious when you consider his last several films have been with legends like Steven Spielberg and Chris Nolan, and rising stars like Rian Johnson. Typically he has played characters lovesick and damaged, puppy-eyed in (500) Days of Summer and cancer-struck in 50/50. But here he is damaged differently, growling and vocalizing down an octave, emotionally disconnected and confidently seductive. His slicked back hair just screams sex!
This movie is like a dark sitcom without the laugh track. For one thing, there’s the limited amount of set pieces Jon cycles through on a daily basis: his gym, his church, his club, and his apartment. There’s the Sunday family dinners with dad (Tony Danza) throwing more F-Bombs than the quarterbacks he watches on his big screen, with mom mediating her two men, and with a sister (Brie Larson) glued to her phone. They dive into their meals, throwing around their Jersey accents, simulating contemporary Saturday Night Fever interactions around the table. The nightclub however is not for disco. It’s a place for Jon and his two bros to assign numbers out of 10 to girls, lurch and lock eyes on them, and go in for the kill.
Most of the time that means Jon rides (often with road-rage) home with a new lady to have sex but mostly to complain about it. He narrates his displeasure with the missionary position over thrusting and confesses that watching porn is a much more enjoyable form of orgasm. The amount he masturbates to his Macbook varies each week. The laptop’s startup sound, he admits, turns him on, a gimmicky Pavlov’s dog used to signify another round of voyeuristic pleasure. These deeds are resuscitated in confessional to a blank priest, who comically issues arbitrary numbers of Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers for Jon’s differing amounts of sexual transgressions.
But one night Jon sees his 10 by the bar, a curvy figure in red named Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) who is wary of his short game and delays his impulsive, infatuated proceedings. They go on dinner dates and to the movie theater, and Jon disrupts his cyclical routine, rejuvenated with his latest attachment. She’s a romantic and dresses and lipsticks in candy colors, a trophy wife wannabe. She even gets Jon to go to night school to elevate himself out of the service industry.
The film premiered in Sundance with the title ‘Don Jon’s Addiction’ but its shortened name implies a hesitancy to associate itself with a deeply rooted systematic problem. Don Jon ducks away from the severe critical analysis that comes with an exposition in addiction, presenting a character who claims, “It’s not like I can’t stop” when confronted with his habitual practice. The side effects of his ostensible disease do not plunge into the chilling internal Manhattan under which Michael Fassbender’s character in Shame hides and stares coldly. Jon suggests his addiction is more an obsession, but quitting cold turkey, even for his relationship’s future, is not as easy as he claims it is.
That’s because Jon’s whole life is really an addiction. The ritualistic angry drive to church, the humdrum penance, the prayers he exhales out in his pull-ups. These are his other forms of masturbation. His view of women shrinks with each video he consumes, as does his sense of reality. But Barbara is not immune to her own skewed worldview, steeped in romantic comedies she consumes with tear-flavored popcorn that dictate her ideal partner’s eternal qualities. If anything, this is less a critique on the pornography industry and more an analysis on masculinity, gender roles and subsequent perspectives. Who is allowed to watch porn? Does pornography have other forms than just sexual imagery?
Along the way, Jon casually meets Julianne Moore as a forty something at night school, emotionally candid to Jon’s sharper exterior. She serves multiple roles in this film: a maternal figure, a sexual shaman, a therapist. She lends him a porno film from the 1970s and explains the misconceptions of women in his current intake of erotic media, the importance in consensual, spiritual bonding. She’s some sort of hippie pot smoker looking for meaningless sex but Jon is a different kind of class project, and she’ll happily reverse her role from student to teacher. She’ll make sex meaningful again.
So what to make of Jon’s stern, wincing, almost frustrated facial expressions of masturbation? Gordon-Levitt is not interested in promoting himself as a George Clooney do-it-all auteur whose primary goal comes in bold brushstrokes and promotional headshots. He triumphantly cares for the details, making ruffled hair and church tardiness the key minute details of his transformation. It’s admirable. This is neither a giant leap into directing nor a bold claim about pornography. It’s a careful, pleasurable, sexy first step.
– Jake Kring-Schreifels