Don Jon has everything you could possibly want in a film.
One: Joseph Gordon-Levitt has multiple orgasms in the course of two hours.
Two: Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore play their complex female characters with finesse.
Three: the film carries a strong message about pornography, media, and relationships, and:
Four: it has a lot of sex (this is unsurprising and still pleasant).
The film’s title is a play on the Spanish legend of Don Juan: a fictional, hypersexual, libertine womanizer. Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a modern-day Don Juan of sorts, and as we see in the opening monologue of the film, he has a short list of things he cares about: “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.”
His life is a loop of masturbating, picking up women at the club, taking them home, masturbating again once they’re asleep in his bed, going to church the next day, confessing his week’s sins, and then praying them off while working out at the gym afterwards. (We see multiple shots of Jon grunting his prescribed hail-Mary’s on the pull-up bar.) However, one day, Jon encounters Barbara Sugarman (Johansson): the archetypical, scorching-hot, elusive blonde who sets off the events of the film.
Using Jon and Barbara’s subsequent relationship, Don Jon explores a myriad of issues. “I wanted to tell a story about how people objectify each other and how media often contributes to that, especially when it comes to love and sex,” said writer, director, and lead actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“We learn a lot of expectations from movies, or TV shows, or commercials, or magazines, or pornography, and those expectations are unrealistic and maybe not so healthy. And if we’re busy comparing our own lives and our partners to those expectations, we’re doomed.”
In a nutshell, Don Jon argues that excessive consumption of porn (which is, largely, sex through a distorted lens of male fantasy) affects the average male viewer’s desire for real women because they fail to “match up” to the standards put in place by porn. After his sexual encounters with the many lustful women he picks up at bars, Jon laments how they didn’t get down to the dirty shenanigans that your average pornographic protagonists do.
A naked, willing woman isn’t enough – no, she has to have the ass, the tits, the ten-minute blowjob, the doggy-style, the anal, the money shot – the list goes on and Jon has to have it all.
Interestingly, the film bombards us viewers with such a slew of porn clips that we become just as desensitized to the objectification of women as Jon is (and mind you, it isn’t even the kind of porn that’s pleasant to the eye). Even more interestingly, we see Barbara objectifying Jon too, but in a slightly different way.
Perhaps the female equivalent of hardcore porn would be hardcore romantic films (not to say that women cannot enjoy porn or men cannot enjoy a good rom-com). Barbara guzzles on-screen fairy-tales like Jon depends on his Pornhub dose. She watches, wide-eyed, as Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway (in ridiculous cameos) drive off into the sunset. She idealizes a macho man who sacrifices all for his woman, who would “do anything for her.” Consequently, she views Jon through her distorted lens, and attempts to reduce him to her unhealthy fantasy of a one-sided, treat-me-like-a-princess relationship.
This brings us to the crux of the film’s message: romantic and sexual mutualism.
Cue Ester (Moore), a charming yet vaguely sad older woman taking a night class with Jon, who serves as his revelation, almost a character foil to Barbara. She is beautiful, complex, and at first slightly irking to Jon, but she eventually shows him how sex is a “two-way street.” Jon’s self-revelation unravels with a heartbreaking honesty in the face of her gentle, older wisdom.
While it may seem easy to dismiss the climax of the film as yet another story of a wayward lothario finally realizing that women are human too, the fact is that porn deeply affects the expectations our boys form of sex and the expectations our girls hold themselves to. And that’s what makes Don Jon an important work of art.
What I particularly liked, however, was how it showed both sides of the story. It’s not just men objectifying women: Barbara’s unrealistic expectations of Jon are a form of dehumanization in themselves. I cannot count the number of times I have heard my female friends raving on and on about how they would one day like to find a man who would “do everything for them”, who would “take care” of them no matter what, and I cannot count the number of times I have heard male friends talking about caring for their girlfriends and “treating her like a princess,” not realizing that care and support go both ways.
Girls – your boyfriends should care about you because he loves you, not because it’s some sort of prerequisite. And you must care for him too.
Entertainment and media normalize heterosexual romantic relationships where the man is the stoic rock for the woman to lean on. This teaches women unhealthy dependency and further reinforces the terrible gender roles that force our men to be “strong,” because apparently that’s what the women want and need.
Don Jon explores some of the most important issues of our time. We’re among the first few generations struggling with porn culture – back in the 70s, full-frontal nudity, a little flash of the womanly bush, and some good old missionary would be enough for the average 18 year old getting by on his stash of Playboy issues. Now we probably see as much or more in Carl’s Jr. hamburger commercials.
This film is an important, much-needed source of conversation on how to deal with unhealthy expectations of men and women and how they reinforce archaic gender roles.
Four stars. Why not five? Because for all the female booty we got to see, we never even glimpsed Mr. Gordon-Levitt waist-down.
(I’m just kidding. Four because there’s always room for improvement.)