Don Jon Argues for Connection over Consumption
Funny, frank and ultimately beautiful, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon argues for a sexual ethic of connection. Gordon-Levitt wrote and directed the smart send-up of sexual consumerism and also stars as the title character: a tanned, muscled and gelled New Jersey player with a porn problem. Don Jon lays (very) bare the shortcomings of one-sided sex, whether it’s Jon’s cyber-habits or his girlfriend Barbara’s lust-tooled manipulation.
[Trigger warning: Don Jon is graphic. We are dropped into Don Jon's world, porn clips and all. If you're uncomfortable with explicit sex, even in the service of good, this is not your film. And if you're emotionally triggered by the topic of porn addiction, skip it or take a good friend to help you process afterward. Take care of yourselves, people.]
Even though the film fails the ever-popular Bechdel Test (does the work of art contain two women who have a conversation about something other than men?), it’s one of the most staunchly feminist flicks in recent memory. Gordon-Levitt deconstructs the male gaze with a heavy dose of irony. Along with the porn clips that litter Jon’s life are startlingly similar clips from prime-time TV and commercials. The film opens with a string of images that could be read as a young Jon’s introduction to skewed sexuality by way of “normal” TV viewing. Our culture and its cameras have long looked on women as objects; no wonder Jon and his friends refer to women as “that,” dropping personal pronouns altogether in favor of numerical rating. (As in “That’s a seven.” “No, that’s an eight.”)
The film also exposes the stereotypically female version of selfish sexuality: Using sex as a tool to get what you want. Jon’s girlfriend, Barbara, is enamored with Hollywood romance. Scarlett Johansson plays Barbara’s unquestioning commitment to a fantasy ideal with aplomb. Barbara’s ideal? A man who will do anything for the woman he loves. Our glimpse into Barbara’s childhood—we see her at a princess-themed party for a younger relative—implies she was raised to see herself as a prize…which is also an object. She uses sex to try to mold Jon into her dream man. On an early date, she won’t let Jon into her apartment, purring “It’s so much better when it means something,” while they make out in the hallway. But what she does next is sexual manipulation at its basest. The scene is both funny and horrifying.
Gordon-Levitt thoughtfully constructs the film to highlight the ritualization of Jon’s sexual habits. Scenes, shots and sounds are repeated as Jon goes through his pattern-driven life. The sound of his laptop powering on. The steeple of his church. The hallway of his gym. And that male gaze? It’s showcased with into-the-camera close ups of Jon as he stares at his laptop or at girls in the club. And even through the screen at the confession booth (another one-sided transaction: a few Hail Mary’s earn his weekly pardon). It’s a well-planned motif that delivers in the end as we see clearly the difference between eyes that consume and eyes that connect.
Nathan Johnson’s superb score musically underlines Jon and Barbara’s sexual delusions with clubby beats and lush strings, respectively. Johnson’s third theme, a quietly beautiful acoustic guitar piece, leads Jon’s transition from consuming to connecting. I won’t give too much away about that transition, other than to say that Julianne Moore’s character, Esther, was very different from what I’d guessed from previews. She offers something entirely missing from Jon’s life—vulnerability—and it’s transformational.
Bottom line: Don Jon is a powerhouse of a directorial debut and a must-see for anyone interested in gender politics, sexual ethics and cultural critique. Plus: Hilarious. The film opens nationwide on September 27.