With Valentine’s Day approaching, it seems logical to give our lovely readers a film piece on a non-traditional romantic comedy. It also gives us a reason to ogle Joseph Gordon Levitt’s many talents. “Don Jon” is JGL’s writing and directing debut. Although many film buffs were critical of the movie prior to its release in September 2013 because of JGL’s choice to also be the lead role, it actually did quite well, boasting an 81-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie offered a lot of surprises in terms of performance, with the biggest surprise being the overall message. JGL was able to make a movie about a porn addict in a sexualized world without glorifying it. “Don Jon” asks the audience to reflect on the standards they place on their relationships—standards influenced and perpetuated by the media.
“Don Jon” separates itself from stereotypical romantic comedies and Valentine’s Day movies by fostering the idea of connection that’s found through discovery, self-love, and respect. It calls attention to media targeted towards women, playing off of their desires, and setting them up for disappointment. When Don takes his girlfriend, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), to the movies, her immediate choice is the Nicholas Sparks romance. When walking out of the theater, she states, “He gave up everything for her,” as if to say true love is only achieved after the man has given up his life, his goals, and his aspirations to live a life with her. Movies like this generate a cycle of obsessive love: They encourage us to give up other areas of our lives and run away together because of the idea that it will all work out, and love conquers everything.
In contrast to Barbara, Don bases the success of a relationship on sex. However, because one-night stands never mirror the sex in porn, he believes he’s picking the wrong girls instead of viewing misleading images. He frequently claims that he“loses himself” when watching pornography. To him, satisfying sex involves male dominance: blow jobs, taking a woman from behind, and, of course, the “money-shot.” However, what Don doesn’t realize is that the women he’s choosing at the club are not the women in those clips. They’re the women in the theaters watching Nicholas Sparks. Both Don’s pornography issue and Barbara’s false belief in love illuminate the power of visual imagery and suggest that seeing is believing. Despite this message, and what makes this movie the ultimate romance is that JGL wrote the script with the intention of saying, “Hey, this is where a lot of us are, look how powerful media can be, let’s break the habit.”
There’s a great deal of discussion around the impact of pornography and how men and women bring that to the bedroom. Porn is filmed from the male perspective, meaning it generally focuses on male dominance. It does this through violence, restraint, the money-shot, and having sex for a female be a guaranteed orgasm. If I were to replicate pornography with my partner, I would have to yell and moan 95 percent of the time, be twisted and cramped into positions that I’m terribly sorry to tell you don’t actually feel good, and then fake one of the biggest orgasms I wish I were actually having. What JGL does so well in “Don Jon” is he manages to find a comedic way to express his disappointment that sex is not a replica of the porn he’s watching, while at the same time the audience feels for this guy who can’t break his habit. Clearly this is interfering with his ability to experience a genuine connection with someone. It doesn’t pull us too far in to the point where we begin to feel shame for relating to him, and it doesn’t let us off the hook by making it a complete joke. It doesn’t brush aside the problem and let us leave the theater with a comfort, or belief that that’s not us, or that it isn’t an issue.
JGL manages to turn the movie around in the second half with Julianne Moore’s character Esther, who calls him out on his unrealistic expectation and pornography problem. Esther is likeable and comforting because she doesn’t shame him for what she’s witnessing. She tries to help him in the best way a new friend can help. Connection is a desire, not pornographic sex. Unlike Barbara who makes Don’s porn addiction about her and calls him disgusting, Esther tries to change his perspective and help him overcome this very real issue. People respond to compassion and empathy, especially in times of struggle. The audience is able to relate to Esther because we either want or have someone like that in our lives that we can comfortably open up with. Without the repercussions of being abandoned, shamed, or questioned. Esther shows Don that connection, and the ability to open yourself up to another person is how you lose yourself. It has nothing to do with whether or not a woman will let you cum in her face.
Did the movie include a lot more porn than I thought it would? Yes. But don’t let that sway you into choosing a Garry Marshall movie (“Valentine’s Day” or “New Year’s Eve”)—unless it’s “Hocus Pocus”—over “Don Jon.” The message in “Don Jon” goes beyond the idea that love conquers all. Instead, it empowers you to be yourself and find someone who appreciates you for you. Like Brene Brown claims, vulnerability is the key to love and wholehearted living. And yes, I did just put Brene Brown and “Don Jon” in the same article. Valentine’s Day is full of cheese; we might as well enjoy it something a little more applicable and realistic to our desires.
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