by Christopher Fraser
I have often found men my age to be hard to tolerate.
I say this as someone who went to a nice school, and then a nice university, in a nice city, populated mostly by nice people. At the age of twenty, I lived in a house with five other men, and we all got on fine. There were no slanging matches, or brawls, or quiet hostilities; in fact, it might have been just what I needed around that time.
Nevertheless, though, there was an attitude towards women that I found hard to parse. There was a level of casual objectification—never portrayed in an unpleasant manner, almost always appreciative—that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. It wasn’t that personalities didn’t matter, exactly; it was more that things like boobs and butts absolutely did. There was a grudging acknowledgement that yes, these creatures did have inner lives of their own, but that talking about those things was a downer – or, god forbid, could signify that the speaker might be a little bit gay.
The titular character of Don Jon is nothing like those old housemates. He is a muscular, strutting ape of a man, quick to dismiss women with opinions as “bitches,” thinking nothing of rating women in nightclubs on a numerical scale. Jon is a man for whom the phrase “on the prowl” was invented. Oh, and he has a porn addiction. Probably.
I say “probably” because this film takes the bold step of centering the narrative on the character least equipped to articulate his feelings; even during the voiceovers that pepper the film, there’s a bro-ish frankness that requires the viewer to piece together what’s really going on. From the first beat, we’re introduced to Jon’s porn routine, in explicit detail; when he talks about why he finds it so thrilling, though, he’s nearly lost for words. He describes it as losing himself, a time where he can tune out from the rest of the world—a peculiar framing of absence, rather than the presence of anything in particular. We witness the same visual beats as he does, in flashes so brief that they provide empty titillation; a direct shot of arousal without navigating any of the complexity you might find with another human.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars and directs, and the film is aggressively centered on his character throughout. Once his routine has been established—a blind and brash dedication to his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, and, above all, his porn—in come the elements intent on messing with that routine, forcing him to question his dependence on the steady beats to which his life thumps along.
In the Don Juan myth, the protagonist’s predilection for womanizing and violence meets with calamitous results, and his total refusal to repent ends in his eternal damnation. Popular interpretation casts the story as not just a lesson in humility, but also a finger-wagging promotion of chastity, and it’s on this point in particular that Don Jon evolves considerably. Without spoiling too much, Jon’s bad boy makes good by the end of the ninety-minute running time, but there aren’t any huge, teary confessionals—in fact, the film takes a rather dim view of these, turning Jon’s Catholic remorse into yet another routine. And while there is a certain degree of moralizing at the film’s core, it centers on a specific attitude around sex, not the act of sex itself.
I don’t think Don Jon is anti-porn either, much in the same way that I don’t think Leaving Las Vegas is anti-alcohol. Instead, Don Jon shows the pathology of addiction around a substance that is rarely conceded as addictive in the first place. It asks questions about what happens when a world that incorporates the softcore into every facet of society starts affecting the psychology of young men, and begins to come up with some answers.
The casting of the women gives me pause, and at first glance represents the closest this film gets to its romantic comedy trappings. Yes, the first woman Jon finds himself drawn to is played by International Sex Symbol Scarlett Johansson, and she eventually finds herself followed by Recognizable Nuanced Female Julianne Moore, but the film at least makes an attempt to subvert these stereotypes. Johansson is given the typical (and deliberate) male gaze that follows her wherever she goes, but she’s also portrayed as someone with her own inner life, albeit one that follows just as many unrealistic expectations as Jon’s.
Moore, on the other hand, has all the wisdom in the world, and fulfils the stereotype of leading the male protagonist toward a more worthwhile existence. But she does so in a way that lays bare her own insecurities—it is the scenes in which she appears where Jon is at his quietest.
Jon fumbles his way in the dark, guided at first by his libido and second by morbid curiosity—a broken relationship and a new woman (as these things often go) lead him to reassess his priorities in a way that feels less about drama and more about a glimmer of self-awareness. Beneath the cozy routines is a very angry young man, and it only takes a few things falling out of alignment to bring that anger forward. Don Jon has no illusions about its points of tension—for the protagonist to look critically at his hunger for a quick fix, he first needs to be forcibly taken out of his addictive cycles.
After at least an hour of exposed breasts and dozens of orgasms, the single most erotic scene in Don Jon plays out with both actors partially clothed, with no distractions, portrayed as simply as possible. By the last few minutes, the performance of Jon’s life seems to be stripped away.
That, ultimately, is what lies at the heart of this film. Don Jon forces the viewer to acknowledge that both pornography and cinema are performative in nature, and that using either to learn about anything other than the basic anatomy of sex is a misguided venture. It shines less of a light on porn and romantic comedies, and more on the backdrop they are against—one where frank discussions of sex and intimacy are still painfully taboo in many circles, particularly among young men.
There’s one scene, about halfway through, where Jon and his family sit down to dinner. In the background, a huge television blares sports, and cuts to a commercial for Carl’s Jr., a fast-food restaurant. In the commercial, a glistening woman with an hourglass figure and a barely-there bikini eats a burger in slow-motion. The camera zooms in on her lips as she bites into the burger, while soft rock plays in the background.
It’s utterly absurd when the film shows it (in its entirety), because it’s intercut with the dead-eyed, slack-jawed expressions of Jon and his father (played by Tony Danza), while his sister (Brie Larson) and mother (Glenne Headly) look increasingly awkward. We’re made to witness the male gaze twice, and it’s that second round—the one where two sweaty loudmouths are rendered silent and stupid—that really hits home. This film has something to say about love—in that sense it can still be called a romantic comedy—but the more impressive feat it achieves is exposing the background noise of every viewer’s life and questioning how innocuous it actually is.
Don Jon has been compared to (500) Days of Summer, presumably for the fact that both are unconventional romantic comedies starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Beyond that, though, these films are powerfully different. Most romantic comedies start out with men who are all smiles and charm, but who see women as objects of conquest until the credits roll; Don Jonbucks that trend by making its protagonist initially odious, and using the women to force him to humanize and respect the people around him by the last scene. It threatens to make those watching it—especially young men, but really everyone—think critically for once.
Christopher Fraser is the Operations Manager for Bright Wall/Dark Room and the author of two books. He lives and works in Massachusetts.