Every person is complex once you scratch their surface and expose them to a possibility of change to form a better version of himself or herself. Up until that point, one may well be an egotistical bum with some pretty primary urges and live a basic and simple life. The heart of the matter is finding that turning point in your life that is going to exact that change. This may sound like a nicer-sounding recap than the protagonist of this story may deserve, but, that may be precisely what may give away our preconceived notions about a certain type of character, and the misguided notion that what you see is what you get, period.
You’ve known – or at least heard of – a man like the one depicted in this story. Jon – or Don Jon as he is known by his friends – is the ultimate working class, adult suburban male – he goes to the gym to sculpt his guns, goes to the disco to rip up the carpet and takes every chance he gets to catch that tall, slender attention-grabbing chick’s eye. He also seems to have his share of traditional Catholic values instilled in him by his Italian-American family – he goes to church but only to routinely confess his out-of wedlock sexual trysts. The first part of this description may realistically fit in with the core aspirations of any average adult male of today – to a lesser or greater degree- particularly from a certain socioeconomic strata . He has one habit that no relationship has managed to put down, though – he is an avid internet porn consumer. The source of his compulsive behavior is his utter dissatisfaction with the lack of glamour and embellishment in his own sexual encounters. This leads to an interesting reflection: any notion of shared feeling, sensitivity and passion between two people who lose themselves in sex is somehow curtailed and corrupted by the one-sided, nihilistic, emotionally vacuous nature of porn, and how a lot of that plays a major, decisive part in who we choose to live our lives with, and how.
Don Jon is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also directed and wrote the movie. This was, undoubtedly, a story that if he had not been involved, it probably would have not been given a major commercial release.
At one point, Don Jon meets someone he recognizes as his soul mate. The girl is aptly called Barbara Sugarman (Scarlet Johansson). She is high-maintenance with a morale that could have been extracted from a tabloid magazine. She wants to take it slow and she is sure to give him some indications that she is not the type of girl to take for granted. She even takes it upon herself to ask him to aspire to better things in life by attending night classes.
They seem to hit it off until the time when he is caught watching porn on his computer. At that moment, the movie takes an interesting turn – it’s not about him struggling to find the way to redeem himself and stop engaging in such a destructive ritual for the sake of saving his relationship. It’s not about imposing a view but about teaching the value of something that is very frequently used as the paradigm of happiness, when it can lead to frustration when approached wrongfully. It’s all much simpler – and yet, more truthful – than that – it’s about meeting someone who can teach you how to live a better, more fulfilling life.
Jon meets a woman in class who is seemingly older than him. Her name is Esther (Julianne Moore in a curiously subdued role). She seems to come from a distraught past – she lost her husband and son in a car accident and has since had to cope with the aftermath of such a tragedy by herself. At first he is resistant to talk to her as she seems to possess, at the outset, all the characteristics that repel him for her utter lack of – shall we say – sex appeal – fragile, inquisitive but sensitive in a motherly way. She is the opposite of what the world of porn seems to present him with. Yet, from the very beginning, she has an inexplicable inclination to want to talk to him. It’s as if she had recognized a certain certain sense of loss in him. The way their two worlds come together, I will leave for you to find out, only to say that despite its crude subject matter, it’s a movie full of subtle moments that invite discussion about how the sex industy damages the sensitivity and feeling of relationships.
Everything in the movie – except for one or two minor details – rings true. Scarlet Johansson’s suggestion that he is too old to be cleaning his own apartment is not very well-grounded in real human experience. The spiritual transformation of Jon, as a whole, should have taken a little more time. Whether his relationship with Esther stays at life lesson level or takes a more intimate, transcending course is not really shown. The script does not spend enough time delving into the psychological entrails of Jon’s in terms of how he reacts to this turning point in his life. However, it’s a movie whose initiative deserves some praise, and what’s more important, it’s a movie with an uncanny eye for detail. Gordon Levitt proves to be an accomplished writer and he captures the overall psychological traits of his characters very nicely. If only he had shown a bigger picture and fully explored the implications of this journey of self-discovery Jon embarks on.