Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s much anticipated writing and directorial debut, Don Jon, is a romantic comedy about the shared struggle for intimacy between two shallow New Jerseyites, one with a propensity for porn and the other for Hollywood fairytales. Unfortunately, the film’s “satire” is so uncritical it mirrors the very problems it claims to critique. For starters, the filmmakers intended Don Jon to be a critique of negative media portrayals of women, yet the film itself fails to pass the Bechdel test.
Gordon-Levitt’s character, nicknamed for the legendary, womanizing libertine, occupies himself by rating women’s attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10. He makes a rather sick game of seducing “10”s—or “dimes,” as he and his douchey friends refer to them—despite not actually enjoying the ensuing sex. In fact, after bland fucking with equally bland “dimes,” he scrambles from post-coital cuddling to his computer where he loses himself in the fantasy world of mainstream pornography. He prefers pornography, as the annoying voice-over informs us, because “real pussy can kill you.” Of course, this doesn’t make much sense considering he’s presumably face-to-face with “real pussy” every time he takes home a “dime,” but whatever… In any case, his love interest, Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, is meant to parallel the protagonists’ shallowness through her adoration of Hollywood chick flicks. Cause, like, dudes like emotionless fucking and chicks like romance, duh.
We see Jon and Barbara’s relationship evolve in ways that, at times, draw from played-out gender stereotypes—Barbara withholds sex from Jon in order to manipulate him, at one point dry humping his crotch until he agrees to take a night class. At other times, their green relationship feels realistically naïve and uncomfortable. When Jon’s caricature of a father (Tony Danza), for instance, tricks Barbara into kissing him, she sheepishly laughs it off in order to remain held in high regard by Jon’s mother (Glenne Headly), a clichéd maternal character. Barbara’s vulnerability in this scene is attractive and humanizing and seems in stark contrast to the cartoonishly bad behavior around her. At this point in the film, I started to have hope—I hoped Gordon-Levitt would explore gender and sexuality in profoundly nuanced ways; perhaps paint a portrait of Barbara as a complicated woman navigating the bumpy terrain of systemic female objectification while trying to maintain integrity and bodily agency. But, alas, after several scenes of gratuitous and rape-y objectifications, Barbara and Jon break up. We revisit Barbara only once more, and only as proof of Jon’s growth and her stagnation. We assume she’s destined to carry on as the manipulative harlot Jon perceives her as. It’s almost as if the film’s cultural critique is not of objectification, but of being the object of objectification. Eerily, it feels a whole lot like anti-sex work rhetoric.
What sets this film apart from other dull portrayals of falling in love as a white, middle class, able-bodied heterosexual is the protagonist’s use of pornography. As a sex worker, I am always excited to see the ways my experiences are portrayed in mainstream filmography. And I’m also always disappointed. From happy hookers to pretty women who fall in love with millionaires, I never leave the theater thinking, “Yeah! They totally nailed the super complicated aspects of sex work, the cultural and social reasons for the existence of this work, and the distinct and subjective feelings workers have about their labor!” I left Don Jon, as I’ve left other films that don’t quite get it, feeling like I needed a shower.
Ultimately, Don Jon portrays viewing pornography as shameful, which is, of course, deeply problematic. The internet is peppered with delightfully rebellious and progressive pornography and the film’s choice to focus almost exclusively on money shot shit is stylistic and purposeful. The one-dimensionality of the film—the cartoonish characters, the overly simplistic human interactions, the played out tropes—simply wouldn’t work if pornography were shown, in contrast, as multi-dimensional. That’s one of the main reasons this film and almost all others like it don’t work: they’re premised on the notion that sex work is one-dimensional. Can you imagine any other addiction (Jon refers to his porn viewing as such) being portrayed so heartlessly?
There are moments of brilliance in Don Jon. Gordon-Levitt juxtaposes his character’s porn addiction with his perfunctory enjoyment of other “things:” his body, his pad, his ride, his church, his family, his buddies, and his sex partners. This is an exquisite example of white male privilege—the belief in the ownership of “things,” whether said things are people or cars. I can get on board with this critique of objectification. What I can’t get on board with is the presupposition that women are somehow equally responsible for their own objectification or, worse, that we’re irredeemable when we charge for it. Point in case, Barbara uses her sex to get what she wants and Jon uses her for her sex. Yet, while Jon’s character has the capacity for enlightenment and growth, the film concludes with Barbara as the villain, who, as Jon’s sister points out, “has her own agenda.” How dare that whore have her own ideas! Her own hopes! Her own expectations!
Moreover, Julianne Moore’s character, Esther, develops in opposition to the materialism of Barbara. It’s a cowardly repackaging of The Virgin and The Whore—whereas Barbara owns her sexuality and, fortunately or unfortunately, commodifies it, Esther is the altruistic heroine whose sex is neither commodified nor bound by so-called ulterior motives. Whereas Barbara takes advantage of Jon’s objectification of her, Esther simply wants to teach him how to “make love.” Her sex is free and altruistic; Barbara’s, alternatively, is conditional and subsequently portrayed as manipulative. I find it disturbing that a film critical of mainstream pornography still ends up emphasizing male sexual pleasure and traditional gender roles.
In the end, I have the intense desire to slow-clap my praise of yet another boring story of a young, white, privileged man who overcomes the vicious clutch of witchy temptresses with the help of other whore-hating women. This film is not only an exercise in whore-shaming, it’s a clear example of what happens when someone with privilege attempts to speak for those without.