Movie review by Greg Carlson
In a famous line in Laura Mulvey’s influential “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the film theorist writes, “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the onetime child performer turned serious and sought-after actor, makes his feature writing and directing debut with “Don Jon,” a loaded, comic spin on the prerogatives and expectations of masculinity and femininity in the age of ubiquitous Internet pornography and media-constructed messages selling us the just-out-of-reach good life. Gordon-Levitt’s decision to situate his characters within the world of working-class New Jersey Italian-Americans is simultaneously the movie’s strongest asset and greatest liability.
As swaggering bartender “Don” Jon Martello, Jr., Gordon-Levitt adopts the hairstyle, wardrobe, and thick accent necessary to distance key elements of his more contemplative public persona and previous role choices from the broader exaggerations of his priapic new character. The tactic, underscored in one of the movie’s effective trailers, serves as a reminder that Jon derives pleasure from a particular set of basic offerings. Possibly in ascending order of importance, Jon cites “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, and my porn” as the few things that he really cares about. The central conundrum for the young man, then, is outlined by Jon’s perceived failure of real life to recreate the same thrills offered to him by the fantasy world of pornography.
Jon is accustomed, night after night, to alcohol-fueled club hookups that rarely extend beyond one-night stands. When he spots perfect “dime” Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), Jon has no clue that his predictable pattern of predatory conquest will be challenged, upended, and torched. Gordon-Levitt suggests that Barbara’s own sense of entitlement is driven by a no-less damaging enslavement to the happily-ever-after mirages served up in countless big screen romantic comedies. Johansson’s extraordinary physicality coincides with Mulvey’s claim that the viewer takes scopophilic pleasure in “using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (Gordon-Levitt was enthusiastically praised by Reddit users for his “genius” casting) and her character is decidedly situated within the “language of the dominant patriarchal order” to which Mulvey refers.
Strictly from a narrative standpoint, the inclusion of Julianne Moore’s older woman, a grieving widow named Esther who teaches Jon that “real” sex is a “two-way thing,” softens and subdues the movie’s flirtation with chauvinistic brutishness. The revelation of Barbara as a manipulative, demanding, castrating princess, rather cleverly communicated in the only dialogue spoken by Jon’s otherwise silent, eye-rolling, constantly texting sister Monica (Brie Larson), gives off the slight whiff of sour stereotype. Moore’s worldly, mature guide contrasts efficiently with the high-maintenance Barbara, allowing Gordon-Levitt to investigate a mother-whore equation and let his character off the hook.
When the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was published in May, some mainstream press articles and essays fixated on the tricky terminology of sexual “addiction” by noting the convoluted history of hypersexuality in the DSM and the ongoing question of whether compulsive use of sex and porn is more than a “condition” in need of additional study and research. In spite of the graphic descriptions of sexuality and the inclusion of lurid but carefully edited clips of well-known “adult” industry veterans like Alexis Texas and Tori Black, it might be a stretch to describe “Don Jon” as edgy and challenging when the movie’s conclusion hews to Jon’s description of the pretty woman and pretty man who drive off into the sunset even though “everyone knows it’s fake.”