Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon, does for porn-dependence what Shame did for sex addiction by offering a surface-level look at the effects of its specific pathology on its lead male character. But while Steve McQueen’s film made no effort to explain its upper-crust hero’s inability to stop fucking, Gordon-Levitt attempts to situate his own lead character’s porn obsession within a very specific context: a working-class Italian New Jersey home life whose patriarchal structure perpetuates the view that women are little more than objects of desire and a media environment that echoes these same ideas.
As such, the film is both blunt to the point of redundancy and unnecessarily one-note (and thus inevitably condescending) in its portrayal of a stereotypical Italian family. Beginning with a credit sequence that functions as a montage of sexy televisual images from throughout the years, presumably representing the “education” of Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt), the film then goes on to introduce via raunchy, allegedly comical voiceover the predicament of its protagonist. “Don” Jon, as his friends call him, has little difficulty picking up attractive women at the club. But while he regularly indulges in this practice, no sexual experience can compare for him to the pleasures of porn, a world of pure fantasy where women do things they won’t do in real life.
Things change when he begins dating the gorgeous, elusive Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who declares Jon’s porn habit “disgusting” and forbids him from looking at any of his online skin flicks. The introduction of Barbara serves several purposes. It allows the viewer to see the other side of Catholic-boy Jon’s virgin-whore fixation, as he continually refers to her as a “beautiful thing,” an object to be worshipped. The couple’s visit to Jon’s parent’s home also hammers home the harmful effects of his family’s traditional ways of thinking. While Jon’s father, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza), leers perpetually at Barbara and is moved to wax “poetic” about the time he first met his own wife and mentally declared, in what he views misguidedly as a bit of romanticism, “That’s mine,” Jon’s mother, Angela (Glenne Headly), is simply thrilled that he’s found someone who can provide her with grandchildren.
Finally, Barbara’s role is to provide an unforgivable stereotype of the material-obsessed Joisey princess who symbolically castrates our hero, bossing him around and pushing him to get a better job than his current bartender gig, not because she cares about his well-being, but because she doesn’t want to be with someone in the “service industry.” While things don’t last long with Barbara, she’s a central enough figure in the film for her to help Gordon-Levitt undermine his own point. If she’s the representative “real-life” woman, then isn’t everything Jon thinks about women and about the superiority of porn justified?
Fortunately, both for Jon and the movie, Gordon-Levitt introduces another character, an older woman that Jon meets at a college class he’s taking. Played by a game Julianne Moore, the only person in the film who doesn’t talk as if she’s never left New Jersey in her life, Esther sets about schooling Jon in the realities of sexual behavior. As such, she’s both a refreshing presence in the movie, someone who talks and acts like an actual adult, and a character thanklessly tasked with delivering the film’s blunt message about porn. Ultimately, she teaches Jon that porn isn’t “real” sex and that the reason he’s dissatisfied in the sack is because he never takes the actual presence of his partner into account, treating her strictly as a living masturbatory aid. Hardly revelatory stuff, though it clearly is for Jon and apparently for Gordon-Levitt too. But in the end, the discovery by one New Jersey meathead about how to have good sex is no more remarkable than the non-lesson delivered to Michael Fassbender’s affluent Manhattanite, Jon’s cinematic counterpoint, about his own uncontrollable sexual habits.