Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore
One of the great misconceptions about feminism is that it's something which solely benefits women, and one of the great deceptions about patriarchy is that it's only harmful to women. Patriarchy creates impossible and restrictive standards for men just as it does for women, entrenching in each gender ideas and expectations regarding the other which are unfair at best, and destructive at worst. This is a long way of saying that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's feature directorial debut Don Jon is an uncommonly intelligent film about the ways men and women relate (or fail to do so) and how the culture of "masculinity" and "femininity" determines the confines of that discourse - even if the film ultimately does not quite live up to its thematic ideals.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Jon, a New Jersey bartender who lives his life like he's a cast member of Jersey Shore, obsessed with his gym toned body, hitting clubs with his two best friends, and "smashing" a different woman every night. He's got his life down to a precise routine which includes the gym, the club, and sex, as well as time spent with his family and time spent at church, but these things are really only moments of respite from his great obsession: pornography. In an early monologue he confesses that for all the action he gets with actual women, his only real satisfaction derives from the time he spends alone with his computer, which gives him exactly what he needs without the inherent messiness of having to contend with the agency of another human being. This changes (slightly) when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a woman he becomes enthralled with after she refuses a casual hookup and then puts him through his paces before going to bed with him. Rather quickly Jon finds himself giving up his lothario lifestyle, convinced that he's in love with Barbara and determined to be the boyfriend she insists he become, which includes going to school so that he can "move up" from being a bartender, and giving up watching porn. Although he does the former with little argument, doing the latter proves almost impossible.
Afraid of being caught looking at porn on his computer, Jon turns to his phone, watching porn whenever he's not around Barbara, including while he's in class. His new habit attracts the attention of Esther (Julianne Moore), a classmate who is more amused than anything and offers him a lot of unsolicited advice. At first he finds her merely irritating but then, after Barbara breaks up with him over his inability to quit watching porn, develops a quasi-friendship/casual relationship with her. Though his relationship with Esther results in changes to his lifestyle just as his relationship with Barbara did, it's as a result of Esther challenging him about his notions rather than trying to force change on him. Considering his situation from an objective perspective, including the fact that he can't go a day without watching porn and the fact that a large part of the attraction is that his relationship to porn is completely one-sided and requires him to give nothing of himself to another person, he begins to think that he may have a problem after all.
As debuts go, Don Jon is a very strong effort, an exceedingly assured and slick piece of work with a lot of ideas it wants to explore. It has a lot to say, obviously, about pornography and how an over indulgence in it can result in a warped views of masculinity and femininity, as well as sex and relationships. It also has a fair bit to say about the sexualization of culture generally, and how that feeds into the sort of casual, unthinking misogyny that Jon and his friends trade in and which makes them almost unable to see women as people rather than objects. The film is very direct about the fact that Jon's attraction to porn stems from the fact that he can get exactly what he wants from the women in the videos without cost to him, having his desires catered to without having to consider the desires of someone else, underscoring this fact by having him admit that, though he has a great deal of sex with various women, it doesn't really do it for him but becomes more like a primer for the time he spends alone with porn. Although the film has satirical edges, it doesn't examine its themes in simplistic terms or come to lazy conclusions like porn is bad, full stop. The film really isn't anti-porn, but pro-human connection, and it's argument is that human connection, specifically a reciprocal connection, is necessary to a happy life and that you can't be a happy person until you've learned to treat others like people, too. Don Jon has a rhythm to its narrative which is established through a series of repeating shots, like Jon walking towards his church on Sunday or him walking down the hallway at his gym. At the gym he repeatedly walks by the basketball court in order to do a solitary workout, until the very end when he opts to join in with the others on the court. Through the course of the film Jon hasn't merely learned to recognize that a woman is a person just like himself, but has opened himself up generally.
Although I think Don Jon is ultimately successful as a film, both in terms of its exploration of its themes and as a piece of entertainment, I do think it's a bit problematic in that it doesn't totally practice what it's preaching when it comes to its depiction of women. None of the female characters in the film are really people in their own right who exist apart from Jon. They are basically garnishes to his character, their only function being to bring out certain aspects of his personality. To be fair, the film is told from Jon's perspective so this aspect could be read as being an extension of his limited (but evolving) view of women, but the emptiness of the female characters does seem like a bit of a waste of Moore and Johansson, though both actresses give it their all. Still, this is a fine debut and it will be interesting to see where Gordon-Levitt goes next.