I have to say, when I first happened upon the trailer for Don Jon – the film that marks the writing and directing feature length debut for Joseph Gordon-Levitt – I wasn’t impressed at all. Honestly, I was a little disappointed. I don’t know much about the guy, but from seeing him in various interviews and taking into consideration his choices in movie roles, I thought that he would at least have some awareness about society and media and how men and women are usually portrayed (I don’t know why, I just assume that decent human beings notice this kind of thing). When I saw the trailer I was left with a feeling that can be succinctly summed up as “Meh!” I was being presented with yet another film about how men are horny animals and women are prudish, commitment craving, shallow harpies who hate when men have fun. Thanks, but no thanks.
I got roped into seeing it then, and my initial impression was proven to be wrong, very wrong. I like being proven wrong about such things. Admittedly the first half of the movie is pretty much what you would expect from the trailer. If it had continued along the same vein I would probably be writing about it now by pounding my keyboard in a murderous rage. But it didn’t ,so I’m not (let the gods rejoice!) because halfway through the movie the stereotypical portrayals of femininity, masculinity and romantic relationships so prevalent beforehand are turned completely on their head. What starts out as a potentially mind-numbing tale about a bone-headed dude who is trying to figure out how to balance living with a porn addiction and an incredibly demanding girlfriend, turns into a thoughtful analysis on the nature of society’s preconceived notions about sexuality and the nature of romance.
I’m using the term “analysis” here a bit loosely. Don’t expect any deep probing into the culture of pornography here. In a way I’m glad it didn’t go too far in that direction. I feel like it would have gotten too preachy and it’s too complicated a topic to really delve into fully in a 90 minute movie, especially if Levitt decided to go in the direction of “ALL PORN IS BAD, FULL-STOP, MEN ARE BAD FOR WATCHING IT”. Such an argument erases the fact that a lot of women do in fact enjoy porn, not all of it (arguably) is exploitative and there is a fair amount of queer porn out there that isn’t directed from the point of view of the male gaze (admittedly, definitely not half as much as there is aimed at men who really have a hankering to see some things that I would rather not get into here *shudders*).
What the movie actually does is question why Jon, and many others like him, feel the need to watch porn in such an obsessive way. It asks why real-life sex becomes secondary in terms of enjoyment. There is sort of a clunky comparison between porn and romantic comedies – one is a form of fantasy escapism for men, one is a fantasy escape for women (guess which is for which?) It made me roll my eyes a bit, but I see what Levitt was trying to do. Scarlett Johanssen’s Barbara makes us question society’s tendency to sexualise women, while at the same time disallowing them from exploring their own sexuality fully. Barabara doesn’t seem to enjoy sex, she merely uses it has a means to get what she wants (sound familiar?). Scattered throughout the movie are ridiculous parodies of advertisements that use this crazy sexualisation of women to sell things like burgers and cars (unfortunately, as funny and ridiculous as these parodies are, they don’t seem to be all that far from reality). But what I really liked about the film was the last twenty minutes. So, I’m not going to get into it, because I don’t want to spoil y’all, I want you to see it!
What I will say is that the film ultimately gives us a representation of romantic love that Hollywood so rarely presents to us. That is, love that is actually romantic; a love that isn’t bogged down in shallow social conventions, institutions or notions that reinforce negative stereotyping of men and women. We get to see a love that is based solely in emotional connection, between two people that really care about each other. I was really struck by it; it’s sad that we don’t get to see that kind of thing in films more often. Instead we’re given sexist – misogynistic even – celebrity ensemble trash cinema that are marketed as oh-so-romantic, but if you read into them a bit deeper, you’ll see that they’re anything but.
In a nutshell, the moral of the story is that the film is basically saved by the presence of Julianne Moore. Sure, isn’t that the moral of all stories?