Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial style in his debut Don Jon proves a bit jarring. But that fits the blunt, vulgar character he plays in the lead. You have to endure Don Jon to see it for what it is. It tramps deliberately through cliché expectations before finally defying them. Along the way, it explores 10 barriers to healthy relationships encountered in real life.
10. Overvaluing Appearance
As Don Jon begins, Gordon-Levitt’s title character establishes himself as a porn-addicted philandering bachelor whose tastes prove highly superficial. He spends a lot of time at the gym maintaining his physique, and takes great pride in the appearance of his “pad.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with nutrition, exercise, and cleanliness. It’s Jon’s motivation which deserves scrutiny.
On the prowl with his pack of like-minded friends, Jon rates women at the club on a scale of 1 to 10, basing his assessment solely on physical attributes. Upon meeting his match in the stunning Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), Jon rates her a perfect 10. It’s her sultry appearance that drives Jon to pursue her, and blinds him to the uglier aspects of her personality.
9. Family Expectations
Tony Danza turns in an iconic performance as Jon Sr., a flawed role model for his son, detached but for rare moments when fickle interest piques. Glenne Headly plays Jon’s hovering mother, desperate to live vicariously through his romantic achievement.
As Jon develops a serious relationship with Barbara, each parent projects their own desires and expectations upon the couple. Neither sees things clearly or has Jon’s objective interest at heart. Their misguided “support” enables poor decision-making.
How often does this play out in real life? Too often, parents and family insert themselves and their personal agendas into their children’s relationships.
8. Religious Hang-Ups
Don Jon’s portrayal of Catholic ritual and guilt proves second to none. Jon swears at traffic on the way to church, then matter-of-factly confesses the week’s debauchery, receiving his prescribed penance.
Upon meeting Barbara and learning her extreme distaste for pornography, Jon integrates his desire to please her with his compulsion to be a better Catholic. He eagerly returns to confession to report a decline in incidents of masturbation, and celebrates a lesser penance from the week before. But he soon realizes that wanting to be a better Catholic or a better boyfriend or a better anything isn’t enough to sustain a change in behavior. To turn from porn, he must cultivate a desire for something that eclipses his desire for porn.
7. Bad Friends
As Jon struggles to change his philandering ways and treat Barbara differently than he has treated other women in the past, he finds himself in conflict with friends. They doubt his sincerity. But they also fear it, because if the “best of them” can become “whipped” by a woman, what hope do the rest of them have?
Jon experiences what many of us do when embarking on efforts to improve ourselves. As a recovering alcoholic must find new friends who are supportive of their change in lifestyle, Jon must meet new people on the path to porn abstinence.
6. Porn Availability
Jon’s addiction to porn is fueled by its availability. Jon liked movies in his youth, because it was one of the few ways available to him to glimpse an attractive girl. As the internet dawned and access to sexual fantasy expanded, Jon’s interest in regular cinema waned.
It’s the first point made in any discussion on the topic. Access to porn used to require a concerted effort, a trip to a store, a clandestine venture to a seedy theater. Now it is readily accessible on any electronic device with a connection to the internet. A virtual harem awaits any willing man, offering indulgence with little to no perceived cost.
5. Hook-up Culture
Despite his very obvious flaws, Jon has no problem convincing numerous women to go home with him night after night. Even when he meets Barbara, who strikes him as special, he still goes home with another woman after Barabara rejects his initial advances. The capacity of Jon and his friends to “score” night after night keeps them from aspiring to anything higher.
Indeed, it is Barbara’s refusal to submit to Jon immediately that heightens his interest in her and leads him to embark on his quest to explore something real.
4. Porn Expectations
The problem is, Jon’s not sure he wants something real. In his experience, real proves disappointing. Don Jon opens with vivid narration of why he loves porn so much. It gives without demand, responding to his desire without hesitation or need of reciprocation.
“I lose myself,” he tells us. It’s an experience that he can’t seem to replicate with a real woman, not even the perfect-10 Barbara once she finally offers herself. He returns to porn as a supplement, which causes problems in the relationship.
3. Rom-Com Expectations
Writer/director Gordon-Levitt provides a mirror for Jon’s addiction in Barbara’s response to romantic comedies. Just as porn conditions Jon to expect a wholly self-serving experience through sex, movies condition Barbara to expect a wholly self-serving experience in every other aspect of their relationship. She withholds sex, not to uphold chastity or pursue some meaning, but as a tool to condition her man.
Barbara wants Jon to sacrifice everything to be with her, as the male leads in her favorite movies sacrifice everything for their women. Romantic comedies do for Barbara precisely what porn does for Jon, fostering a form of self-worship. Barbara hates Jon’s porn, not because its “disgusting” as she claims, but because it proves blasphemous toward her self-worship.
2. Tolerating Abuse
Ultimately, this insistence upon worship reveals Barbara as an abuser in the relationship. One scene has the couple in a home goods store shopping for items for her apartment. Jon, who takes great pride in the upkeep of his home, casually informs Barbara that he’s going to buy cleaning supplies. This sets off Barbara. She declares that no man of hers will be caught cleaning his own home, and insists he hire her housekeeper to clean his apartment.
This may not be abuse in the gravest sense of the term. Nevertheless, it stands as an example of how Barbara expects Jon to sacrifice his values as homage to her self-worship.
1. Disconnected Culture
The ultimate barrier to a healthy relationship explored in Don Jon is the disconnected nature of modern culture. Jon remains disconnected from women, even his highly sought-after Barbara, and therefore cannot experience a relational satisfaction on par with the fantasy provided by porn. Barbara, as it turns out, is just as bad in her own right.
It’s only through the cultivation of another wholly unexpected relationship that Jon learns how to connect with another human being on a truly intimate level. Once he does, he “loses himself” in that other person and achieves an experience far more satisfying than pornography could ever provide.