Spoilers might need more tissues.
When I started watching this one, I honestly thought I wasn’t sure I’d like it. This character’s world felt alien to me at first until I recognized how it’s a male fantasy. Strangely enough, I know that particular dream of having the perfect car, sleeping with a different girl every night and still going to church. It was the dream that was sold to you when you were a testosterone-filled teenager young lad by ads, TV, movies and the shared mentality of your peers. It’s a toxic nightmare.
Don Jon (2013) was written, directed and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His character of Jon is a New Jersey popular guy who goes to the club with his friends, bangs a different girl every night and still shows up Sunday to go to church with his parents and sister. He also has an obsession with porn, one that he keeps closeted and denies in public and that has warped his concept of love and relationships. He’s the definition of the ultimate toxic male.
When he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), we are kinda fooled into thinking we know this is the girl that is going to make him a into a better person. And here’s when the movie makes an unexpected subversion. At first, Barbara seems to be just what Jon needs. She’s smart, she makes friends with his family (which I have to say, they have a toxicity of their own) and once she catches Jon watching porn, she’s mad at hell. Seems she’s the woman to set him right.
The thing is, Barbara has plans for Jon. Some seem reasonable, like asking him to get some education so he can aspire to get a better job. She does seem to be slowly asking him to do things a certain way, like having someone else clean his place. Meanwhile, Jon continues watching porn on the side. He even watches it during night school, which is when he runs into Esther (Julianne Moore). Esther doesn’t chastise him for watching porn. She actually makes him a gift, a dvd with some classic porn. Of course, Jon turns it down and denies everything.
And here’s where the subversion starts. When the unavoidable happens and Barbara searches Jon’s browser history, his world seems to collapse. He wants to try to get back in his previous comfort zone but he can’t. He also finds himself depending more and more on watching porn and even shunning the rest of the world. And in this sink or swim moment, is where he has to grow up. Now, this is where the subversion happens. In any other movie, Jon has to win Barbara back. In this one, he has to move on and Esther, a more broken character but a less twisted one, is the one to teach him a different alternative.
The movie has its flaws in tone and does that quick cut thing of summing up a character’s life transitioning from one scenario to another. Eventually we transition to a more relaxed form of storytelling as Jon realizes how real relationships work, and why he was just jumping into another toxic one. It’s not really about porn being a evil but about it being superficial. Jon’s starting dream is to find a girl who’ll do what porn does for him. What he doesn’t realize is how little he gets out of sex because that’s all he wants.
I also appreciate the family aspect with his father, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza), always watching sports in the background since that’s all he cares about. It shows why Jon has grown up the way he has. Jon’s usually aloof and distant sister Monica (Brie Larson) who remains silent throughout the movie has one shining moment in which she speaks up and tells Jon what he needs to hear. There’s also a little sidebar shade thrown at unrealistic views of romance perpetuated by mainstream rom-coms starring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum. Barbara has her own unrealistic standards set by media consumption.
Strongly recommended with reservations. Yes, it’s very graphic, a lot more than the casual viewer will be able to take. It’s also really honest. I think this is a movie for a lot of men to acknowledge how our views on sex, love and relationships can be distorted by an obsession to porn, sports and other mass-produced media franchises. They are also reinforced by a toxic culture that can even come from friends, family and even religion. The movie is not preachy but it does have, at some point, certain quasi-soapbox moments. Eventually it is about loving yourself enough to want something real rather than just a flashy spectacle.
That will do for now.