Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes, directs, and stars in this off-kilter comedy about a porn junkie–a porn junkie who isn't a creepy, fat, old man without a social life. Don Jon, played by Gordon-Levitt is attractive, clean, and suave. He loves his family and goes to church. He spends his days in the gym perfecting his body and nights at clubs scoping out girls with his buds, but no area of his life is as alluring and, in his mind, as necessary as porn.
Gordon-Levitt very explicitly comments on something that we know to be true but often shy away from addressing: that our reckless consumption media and technology can distort our ideas of romantic relationships. It's both convenient and comfortable for us not to address the effect that porn or chick flicks have. For one, they're viscerally pleasurable; they provide entertainment and relief. More importantly, we know that that if we do address the effects they have on us, we might have to give them up, or worse, we might have to change the frameworks we use to navigate relationships. Because the reality is that both porn and chick flicks enforce a self-centered view of relationships. If we're willing to look beyond that view, well, we might struggle a little bit, because other-centered relationships in which we give to someone else as the expense of ourselves aren't easy. They aren't meant to be.
My best friend and I watched Don Jon in tandem in different cities. She didn't like it. I loved it. She bemoaned Julianne Moore's character, Esther, a grief-stricken widow who copes with her grief in a large empty house by smoking copious amounts of weed. Unlike the other characters in the movie, she is not enshrouded in a larger-than-life persona. She's the clear misfit in the movie, uncomfortably real and awkward, and she's the dark horse that, depending on how you look at it, robs the movie of the seamless, typical rom-com resolution. Esther cries in public, talks to strangers, and sits next to people even when there are other empty seats in the auditorium (I hate that!). But also unlike the other characters in the movie, her understanding of love and relationships is predicated on experience and framed by tragedy, grief, and fragmentation, which is messy but also very real, normal, and dare I say healthy! Onscreen, she is unsettling and disarming because she is so open and vulnerable; unabashed one second and a nervous wreck the next, moving through emotional vacillations that are once senseless and familiar, which makes them all the more painful to watch.
Esther is the counterpoint to Barbara Sugarman, as played by Scarlett Johansson, who is striking, sultry, and sexy, a perfect ten (a "dime," as Don Jon and his friends call it). Though the plot fixates on the emotional and sexual dimensions of porn addiction, Gordon-Levitt also makes much-needed commentary about how other seemingly innocuous media, like chick flicks, can distort ideals of romance–by glazing over the complexities of relationships or deploying unrealistic narratives that confine gender roles to archetypes or instilling in our hearts and minds that we're to feel a certain way in the throes of romance. The dysfunction in Barbara and Jon's relationship, which is the main development of the first half of the movie is affected as much by Jon's dependence on porn as it is Barbara's ideas of manhood and how a man should serve her in a relationship, as understood through chick flicks.
When Barbara finds out that Jon is addicted to porn, she explodes in anger, yelling and crying and calling him "disgusting." Her reaction is to turn away, as is his, at least initially, when Esther confronts him about his porn habit. We're used to pushing these things under the rug–and I don't mean things like the politics of sex or the glamorized sex that the media sells. I'm talking about the darker side of the human psyche, the unfiltered, raw emotions that send us scrambling for some escape so that we don't have to face ourselves. It's not easy to talk about our addictions or our tragedies or the compulsions that are spurred on by losses and exacerbated by our need to repair those losses. How do we even begin to speak of the desires that give us both grief and pleasure, both shame and relief? Maybe it will never be easy to talk about these things, I don't know. But I think at least giving ourselves a chance, risking comfort and vulnerability for the sake of true intimacy and openness, might be worth it.