Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon taps on a point that almost all men and an ever-rising number of women already know, but will rarely admit to in public: Pornography is over-the-top, exaggerated fantasy fulfillment in the same way "legitimate" genre pictures are.
Earlier in this honest and engaging character study, Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a shallow Italian-American who would be right at home as a cast member on The Jersey Shore, is forced to take his girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) to see a typical rom-com in theaters.
As Barbara is smitten with each hokey cliché we’ve seen in almost every romantic comedy, Jon wonders how anyone could eat this unrealistic crap up. Yet Jon is clearly addicted to porn, which presents another, albeit less socially acceptable unrealistic fantasy.
Honestly, I can’t see much of a difference between the hunky male protagonist running after the cute female protagonist at the airport and catching her at the last second, ending with a kiss and an enthusiastic applause from a crowd of strangers, and the hunky pizza delivery guy who just happens to deliver to an all-female bisexual nymphomaniac orgy who all ran out of cash and have other plans for a tip.
After watching the rom-com, Barbara catches Jon masturbating to porn and accuses him of being a sexual deviant. Of course Jon has to jump through hoops trying to convince Barbara that he wasn’t watching porn, that only losers watch porn, and that he was looking at a bad joke email sent by one of his friends. Later, during a heated argument, he finally admits to the truth: Everyone watches porn.
How do we know this? Pornography is a ten billion (Not a typo) dollar a year industry in the USA alone, and this is with endless web sites offering thousands of hours of free, full-length porn videos being uploaded every day. Let’s see Hollywood legally upload high quality videos of their new releases and still keep making money hand over fist.
But like every fantasy, it becomes harmful if indulged in mass quantities in lieu of real life. Jon’s bought into the fantasy of porn so much, that sex with a real human being is just a boring procedure he has to participate in order to keep his credibility as "The Don", an irresistible ladies man. Every week, he manages to have sex with a different woman who looks like a supermodel, yet can’t find enough excuses to complain about it. He hates that women don’t perform oral sex long enough, that he has to perform oral sex for too long, that he has to wear a condom and has to start with the missionary position etc…
Shots of him having joyless sex are intercut with porn actors and actresses doing every imaginable position as they scream with exaggerated fake pleasure with every thrust. He wants real life to be like that and cannot realize what he’s watching is the porn industry simply having to raise the bar on outrageousness in order to stay in business during a time when images that were once considered pornographic not so long ago can be easily found on network television and mainstream advertising. Gordon-Levitt reminds us of this fact by occasionally showing footage of daytime advertising that would be right at home on Playboy TV no longer than twenty years ago.
So Jon expects every woman, even Barbara to live up to those unrealistic expectations and basically become his sex slave in the bedroom. On the other hand, thanks to ever increasing unrealistic expectations from men raised by rom-coms geared towards a female audience, Barbara employs cynical mind games in order to try to transform Jon into a rich hunk who will serve her every romantic needs. One of them is bound to be disappointed.
In comes Esther (Julianne Moore, who could have protested more about her character’s typical old lady name), a sad yet honest and life-affirming older woman Jon meets during a business class Barbara forces him to take. For tragic reasons we find out later, Esther is not afraid to sob in public and seems to have an honest and direct approach to life, which eventually attracts Jon.
Their relationship soon takes on a Harold and Maude dynamic, even though Jon’s nowhere near as disturbed as Harold and Esther’s nowhere near as nuts as Maude. Esther teaches Jon to leave porn behind in order to appreciate real life sexuality exactly as it is, with all of its pleasures and disappointments.
This part could have turned into the typical didactic wise mentor figure created only to force the protagonist into a sudden character arc, but Moore’s earthy and honest approach really helps give the character an extra dimension. In fact, my biggest complaint about Don Jon is that it could have spent more time on the organically blossoming relationship between Jon and Esther and less on the toxic coupling of Jon and Barbara.
Don Jon is an impressive directorial debut by Gordon-Levitt, who shows an expert’s level of control on characterization and structure. Guys are advised to skip porn for a couple hours and check it out while gals are highly recommended to forego whatever Gerard Butler or Channing Tatum rom-com crapfest is littering the theaters at any given moment and give it a chance.