A sexy battle of the sexes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut feature Don Jon looks through the prism of pornography at the modern craving for perfection.
Sexy Beast by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Unlike Byron’s epic poem or even Mozart’s blood-and-thunder opera (which sees the womanising lothario sent to hell), Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon isn’t so much the moral tale of a philanderer’s downfall as the coming of age of a porn addict gradually discovering the pleasures of reality. It might be written, directed and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but Don Jon is anything but a vanity project – with the gelled-up, buffed-up actor self-cast as a pornography addict, presiding over an epileptic flicker of softcore images – his PC pleasures punctuated by the rhythmic rattle of a used tissue hitting the waste-paper basket. But as he shifts his preference for busty titillation and money shots from his own digital montage towards the cold grown-up reality of making love, this Don Jon is caught in a very modern trap of his own making.
Barman Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a player. He meets his guys on a Saturday night in a nightclub where they rate the girls they’re most keen to go home with. But when one night he finds the “dime” of his dreams in the shape of Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), he’s treated to nothing more than flirtatious disdain as she leaves the club in a taxi. But after tracking her down (thanks to some knowledgeable bar staff and some Facebook stalking) they meet for a lunch date. And kept in a state of unsexed anticipation, he’s persuaded by his new gal to change his ways – taking up a night class in entertainment management and leaving his apartment cleaning days behind him. He even introduces Barbara to his (delighted) family, but when she discovers his X-rated PC history and imposes a ban on pornography, their relationship is pushed to a turbulent climax.
With a pitch-perfect performance from Scarlett Johansson as the gum-chewing, blue-mouthed Jersey girl, Don Jon is a modern-day battle of the sexes, pitching the aspirational dreams of the fairer sex, with their obedience-inducing tantalising promise of sex (fashioning their lumpen men of clay into creations in their own image with an education and ambition) against the more earthy pleasures of men – Jon’s life is constructed out of the simple pillars of “body, pad, ride, family, church, his boys, his girls, and porn.” But Barbara and Jon are nevertheless united in a world of fantasy – his pornographic visions of maleness and control equal to her romantic notions of love garnered from popcorn rom-coms. But despite the mutual attraction, their dreams are incompatible. And it’s no surprise that Jon eventually drifts away from the woman who’s too hot to give head, giving in instead to the very real and very human emotional turbulence of Esther (Julianne Moore) the woman from his night class he eventually learns to make love and lose himself with.
And while one relationship is constructed on mutual lies, the other demands a kind of self-knowledge and truth, Esther seeing through Jon’s lies, seeing his faults and accepting them. And challenging Jon in turn to do the same. But despite this message of forgiveness and understanding, women in Don Jon are cast into the kind of stereotypes that suit comedy best – alternately domineering and emasculating, wacky and maternal or silent and astute, like Brie Larson’s scene-stealing, bored but ever-texting sister. And while Jon journeys from a macho boy rutting with his father and rating women he’d like to go home with to an adult man with a more nuanced view of women and life, it’s a disappointingly saccharine ending to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s screwball comedy.
Closing on Washington Square and the bustling abandon of a grown-up love affair, Don Jon is quite tame in its Hollywood treatment of pornography and relationships. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut is nevertheless a funny and fascinating look into the hyperrealism that undermines the lives of the ordinary folk that strive to recreate the heightened experience of the world as seen through the eyes of the media. Just as Jon wants to lose himself in the image, Barbara, similarly hooked by sublime fakery, wants to lose herself in romantic notions of love at first sight, perfect sex and ‘The One’. And as men are forced into lusting after material success, and women compete with images of busty, airbrushed women, real people repeatedly come up short against ubiquitous images of perfect lives. It’s ironic that in the end, the film uses the well-heeled boy-meets-wrong-kind-of-girl tale for its screwball war on the superficial, but handsome and with a good sense of humour, Don Jon is one helluva first date.
Don Jon is released on 15th November 2013 in the UK