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Don Jon

September 27, 2013
Don Jon

I remember when Joseph Gordon-Levitt was just that kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun. Now he’s a genuine movie star, with critically-acclaimed roles under his belt from both the mainstream and the indie circuits. His production company, hitRECord, is going like gangbusters, and now we have Don Jon, his feature writing and directing debut. Is there anything this guy can’t do?

One of the ironies of humanity is that, despite having an ability to affect and manipulate our environment unprecedented among all the animals, we are still animals, and are subject to all of our animal nature and history. We seek out sweet, salty, savory, and fatty foods because these flavors marked essential components of our diet in the wild, but we can now recreate these sensations more purely and intensely than we’d ever find in nature, and without any of the required effort that would moderate our consumption. Our diet, driven by our own hardwired programming, becomes one of the greatest threats to our health.

It may not be as physically debilitating, but the same sort of thing happens with pornography. The sexual drive is one of our most fundamental, and we can craft stimuli that trigger this drive more effectively than anything in the real world. The bodies in pornographic images and videos are pushed into almost cartoonish extremes, in any and all combinations to appeal to all variations of personal taste. With the internet, they’re available with zero effort, and, once the urge is satisfied, they can be disposed of even more easily. They are completely divorced from all the messy, moderating effects that real human relationships impose.

And if anyone knows this, it’s Jon Martello, Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) — “Don Jon” to his friends for his ability to consistently “pull 10s” at the clubs and take home a different knockout every week. And still, despite sleeping with the hottest women around, he keeps going back to pornography. His life is punctuated with the boot-up chime of his MacBook, instantly provoking a physical reaction, and his spent tissues hit the wastebasket of his immaculately-maintained living room with the familiar file-delete sound. Sneaking out of bed to get his fix even with the week’s conquest in the other room, Jon is an addict in all but name and meetings.

And then he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He jumps through her hoops the way he wouldn’t for any other woman, and even after the woman of his fantasies finally goes to bed with him he still sneaks off to his computer. And still she pushes him to be the sort of man she demands, insisting that he stop his hobby of cleaning his own apartment, and that he start taking a class at the local community college.

It’s in class that he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), who is as messy and plain as Jon is fastidious and Barbara is attractive. It’s more than a little clichéd, but she stands as a representative of wholesome, honest relationships that, for all their flaws and imperfections, uphold the dignity of the people involved.

To be sure, Barbara’s manipulations are no less objectifying than Jon’s pornographic obsessions. She, too, insists on conformity to an unrealistic ideal, albeit one that we, as a culture, are more inclined to condone.

It’s in leading us to this realization that Gordon-Levitt has his greatest success as a storyteller. And key to this success is the way he renders Jon both in writing and in acting. He comes across as a very real, fully-developed character. Maybe he’s not the sort of guy I’d like to hang around with, and he definitely has his flaws, but Gordon-Levitt makes it clear that he doesn’t really need the overhaul that Barbara demands any more than she needs to act like a porn star. Or that Esther needs to look like one, for that matter. Going along with it would just reduce a complex, multifaceted person to a different kind of one-note caricature, good for satisfying a certain urge, but ultimately disposable.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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