Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, has been getting solid reviews for its portrayal of the maturation of a twenty-something, working-class Jersey guy. Most of reviews focus on the film’s pronounced pornography aspect. Levitt’s character, Don, and his bros are stuck at a maturity level in which women are debated and rated for their looks on a one-to-ten scale, with a “dime” being both highly elusive and most desirable. Even when Don is “scoring” with women who rate a “nine” he still prefers masturbating and watching pornography. These live and attractive women cannot match the scenarios and fantasies that Don gets from his porn. Sex with live women invariably leaves him disappointed.
Then he meets two women–a “dime,” Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, and a slightly haggard, slightly unstable, middle-aged woman, Esther, played by Julianne Moore–who alter his views on romantic and sexual relationships.
Most American movies do a poor job of depicting a mature male sexuality. Typically comedies represent women as either pliant playthings whose sole purpose is to supply easy sexual release or as stern mommies whose task is to rein-in the male id. Sexual comedies that aim for a male audience celebrate the infantile with the dramatic arc being the male’s quest to escape mommy’s control. Romantic comedies, aiming for a female audience, involve a similar dramatic arc but here the story involves the woman slowly, patiently, and with some setbacks, bending the man’s will until he accepts her control over his sexuality.
For the first two-thirds of Don Jon, the movie appears to be heading towards one of these two resolutions. Hoping to have sex with a “dime,” Don allows himself to be controlled by Barbara, who employs her sexuality to bend Don towards her view of what an idealized boyfriend should be. Don’s parents are thrilled by Barbara’s ability to manipulate Don into “mature” behavior– which in this case involves taking college classes he really isn’t interested in, showing deference to her petty whims [she objects to his cleaning his own apartment], and foregoing sexual conquests with women he’s just met.
This view of male sexuality permeates our culture: a man controls and limits his sexual desires, accepts his girlfriend’s or wife’s “nagging,” and shows ambition. In return the woman allows the man sexual access to her. This is considered a mature manner of male sexual behavior. It is the sexual dynamic of many marriages. However when one party to this dynamic stops meeting his or her end of the “bargain” they end up in divorce court. More rarely one party will realize that this bargain isn’t really intimacy and will pursue other romantic/sexual relationships in order to obtain a sense of true intimacy.
This is where Don Jon exhibits a refeshingly mature view of male sexuality. Don continues to be disappointed that sex with Barbara does not match the images he gets from porn. Because they lack intimacy, sex between Don and Barbara is merely a physical act and the mere physical release continues to leave Don dissatisfied. He reduces and hides his pornography usage but doesn’t stop using. Meanwhile Barbara uses her sexual access to control Don’s sexuality and prevent any porn usage, getting furious when she catches him using and lying about his usage. Further, cognizant that her extreme good looks allows her to dictate the terms of their sexual encounters, Barbara limits and scripts these encounters to a set routine that allows no spontaneity or play. This is the seemingly mature sexuality that Don is expected by his peer and parents (and by our culture) to find satisfying.
After being dumped by Barbara, Don begins a relationship with Esther that transforms him–and not in the manner of typical comedies of sexual mores. This relationship does not turn him into stable husband/father material, does not make him ambitious, and doesn’t appear to be long-term. Esther is accepting, even encouraging, of Don’s use of pornography, though she encourages him to view more “women friendly” porn. She encourages Don to see sex as less a set of scripted calisthenics and more as an emotionally intense form of play. Finally she encourages Don to view sexual connection as not some part [reward?] of a larger transaction between two “mature” adults but as a way to meaningfully connect with another person on an intimate level.
Don Jon is ostensibly about a young man overcoming his porn addiction but it really isn’t. By the movie’s conclusion Don still appears to be consuming porn, though his usage is no longer all-consuming. Nor does his character arc include being “redeemed” by the love of a good woman, as his relationship with Esther seems temporary and he still lacks the ambition/direction to make a good husband or father.
Rather Don Jon is about understanding the power of sexuality to “lose oneself in another person”–a term Esther actually uses to describe great sex. It is the most accurate description of what great sex feels like (both emotionally and physically) and it is type of sex that I believe most of my male peer and clients seek and strive for.
I was middle-aged before I came to the realization that the transactional nature of most sexual relationships was ultimately dissatisfying, and even dispiriting. Kudos to Joseph Gordon-Levitt for obtaining this insight by age 32. In a culture that tells men we should be looking for bimbos or mommies to satisfy our sexual desires, Don Jon’s bildungsroman is a welcome corrective.