Don Jon (Gordon-Levitt, 2013)

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Don Jon is not as funny as it thinks it is. It is not nearly as daring as it thinks it is. And it is nowhere near as truthful as it thinks it is. 

The central thesis of Don Jon appears to be that having sex is better than watching porn. I guess I agree with that proposition, though I’m not sure I agree with the ways it attempts to back it up.

Our eponymous hero is a New Jersey guy whose life has settled into a regular routine. Clubbing with two equally sex-obsessed friends; masturbation and porn to make up for not having sex or to supplement the unsatisfactory nature of the sex he does have; a weekly trip to the church to confess; a trip to the gym to work out while doing his Hail Mary(s) and Our Father(s). Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Conflict, such as it is, is set in motion when he meets and beds Barbara, a “dime” (a perfect 10, get it?), who tries to control him by alternately withholding and then using sex. When she catches Jon in one of his post-coitus porn sessions she extracts a promise that he will stop.  This is supposed to be the introspective period of the film, the one in which he humorously tries to explain and justify the porn and eventually begins to think about how it is affecting his relationships. Contemplation of the latter is guided along by Esther (Julianne Moore, easily the best part of the film) as an older student at the night class Barbara is making him take who catches him watching porn on his phone during a break. Esther’s not being freaked out–she tries to offer him a gift of some higher grade art-house porn–confuses, attracts, and seriously disturbs Jon.

One of the film’s weaknesses as a genre piece is that it takes Jon about four times longer than it takes us to figure out that Esther is way more interesting than Barbara. Yes, I suppose that is counter-cultural and–perhaps in some circles–daring. An older woman is sexier than a younger one! But only if you are just now figuring out that sex is of the mind and not just of the body. It is a staple of romantic comedy that the wrong partner be a shrew so that we know which relationship to root for, so the over-the-top controlling narcissism of Barbara could be forgiven, I suppose, if Jon had anything at all to recommend him as a partner. (He’s more agreeable than Barbara, sure, but only for tactical reasons, not because he’s a better person.) I couldn’t exactly root for him to get together with Barbara since I saw all the ways they were bad for each other long before the movie did, but neither could I root for his relationship with Esther to take off since she seemed nice and I wouldn’t wish him on anyone. Add to the “comedy” mix a mom and dad (Tony Danza and Glenne Headley) who scream over dinner in a fighting Italian couple caricature so broad it makes the Pepe Le Pew look culturally sensitive, and I am hard pressed to think of the last film (much less comedy) I saw with so many unlikable characters.

Still, if Don Jon‘s biggest sins were being a romance that is not particularly romantic and a comedy that is not particularly funny, it would at least have plenty of company. What’s more annoying is the way it passes off superficial taboo flaunting as daring cultural critique. The representation of Jon’s addiction is safely conveyed through quick montages and voice-over narration that acknowledges but never really conveys the sordidness of any addiction. (His porn preferences are described in very hard-core terms, but displayed in rather soft-core examples, and the film doesn’t even come within hailing distance of acknowledging that there are different kinds of porn, that they might stem from different causes, etc.) Jon’s conquering of the habit is a little too easy. He is able to give up porn not by abstaining from it but by replacing it with something that he ultimately finds more satisfying. A more honest film–and on this level even Thanks for Sharing is a more honest film–would have had him more dissatisfied while in the throes of the addiction, more aware that the hole he is trying to fill is getting bigger rather than smaller. Here, though, it is just a matter of something better coming along.  From a Christian perspective, is it really any better to substitute a sex addiction for a porn addiction?

That last point is not just me trying to be catty or puritanical. The way the film defines “love” (the necessary ingredient that makes sex better than porn) as something divorced from a committed, monogamous, life-long relationship contributes mightily to what ends up being the largest WTF? ending of a film I’ve seen in quite some time. The film contends that sex is better than masturbation, at least for Jon, because he longs to “lose [himself]” in another person. Okay, sure, sex is more likely to get you that experience than porn (though I question the film’s assertion that people are incapable of “losing themselves” in porn or fantasy), but the film more or less asserts that this just, well, sort of happens when you are in love. The truth is that intimacy is hard; thus great sex is something that takes effort. I would argue, contrary to the film’s motto, that the very thing that makes sex better than porn is not that you lose yourself but that you find yourself, that sex forces you to be present.

It remains to be said–and I think it needs to be said by someone who is not a Roman Catholic–that the film’s representation of the sacrament of confession is so cynical that I hope it will offend more Christians than just those who are Roman Catholic. The repetitive structure of the first half deliberately juxtaposes and invites comparison between Jon’s consumption of porn and Jon’s practice of Catholicism. They are both ritualistic in nature. They are both unexamined. They are both pale imitations of something better. That in and of itself wouldn’t bother me so much if I felt the film were criticizing the way some people practice religion, but the film seems to be going after the institution itself. Nowhere in the confession scenes is Jon probed to ascertain if he is truly penitent. He is hurriedly and somewhat routinely dismissed. When Jon questions the priest as to why the penance doesn’t change depending on the severity or nature of the sin, the confessional door is slammed in his face. It’s not up to the film to turn a comedy into a catechism. But if Gordon-Levitt (the writer) is going to make Jon’s faith a major part of the film, and if he is going to essentially have a practicing Catholic go through the whole movie only to conclude that the sacrament is a baseless sham, it is hard to look at the absence of a reply as signifying anything other than the church’s embarrassed impotence in the face of questions that make it uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s of a thematic piece as well. Maybe the reason Jon is so messed up is not because he misuses sex and misuses the church. Maybe he misuses those things because he doesn’t have any role models–familial, cultural, or social–to emulate. Maybe the film is about the generational gap and how hard it is to have a healthy attitude towards and practice of sex in a world where all the instruction, incentive, and access is for unhealthy versions or variants of it. But if that’s the case, whence the happy ending? Because of all the lies Don Jon tells, the biggest whopper, to me, is that behavioral addictions have simple root causes and are simply cured by giving the person what he really wants rather than what he has trained his body and mind to think he wants. I don’t know, maybe Don Jon is in on its own lie and laughing at Jon all the way to the end, more stupid and naive for thinking he is cured than for getting addicted to porn in the first place.

I hope not, though. Because, in the end, I’d rather think the film stupid than cruel.

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