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This could be a sort of emblem for a generation of single men.

Don Jon is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut. People love the guy, for all the right reasons, and this film will probably only make them love him more. Maybe not for all the right reasons. Some people are going to like this movie only by ignoring what it is saying to them.

With Don Jon, he has an agenda that not everybody is going to like. No one really wants to have their perceptions and attitudes held up in a mirror and then stripped away, even subtly as this film does it. That said, Don Jon is subtle enough with its criticisms of contemporary gender assumptions that I think a lot of people will miss the criticism altogether and feel they are watching a comedy about overcoming porn addiction. Of course, Don Jon could be described that way, but it’s got a lot more going on.

The film is really about indicting both sides of the issue. It’s a bit more interested in objectification, especially from the male perspective, but it makes plenty of room to share out the criticism with the ways women are also taught to categorize, ritualize, and finally objectify their male counterparts. Don Jon is not a preachy film. This is the reason why it is as good as it is. It’s got an easygoing attitude toward the subject, where the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery is subtle and incremental, but no less revelatory.

Gordon-Levitt brings us along for the ride with subtlety, humor, and a deft hand with the social criticism, never crossing over into hostility or judgmental tones. This is key to keeping the film appealing, especially to people who exhibit many of the same behaviors as the characters in the film. Behaviors which hopefully the film will show are worth rethinking.

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Spending time with the family gives us a lot of insight into the characters.

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bartender in his late 20’s. As he informs us, he only cares about a few things in life but he cares about them a lot. He’s something of an aesthete, really, and perfectly administers those few things. His body, his pad, his ride, his boys, his family, his church, and his women. All of these elements of his personality are exterior things with tangibility that balances out their superficiality, at least for him. Family isn’t about support so much as about ritual. Everything is ritualized, ordered, and thus an object. At least to Jon, who we see has probably internalized this worldview from his parents. This makes him into a Class A douchebag, by any kind of measure. Except Gordon-Levitt makes him not a douchebag. Owing to the guy’s natural charm, maybe, or just the weight charm really has even as we get a look at the shallow guy underneath.

When Jon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) he decides to try a “meaningful relationship”. This is an early and subtle hint that under Jon’s seeming satisfaction with the repetition and ritual of his life, he is seeking something more. He knows that preferring porn to sex is at least atypical. He also seems to suspect that a real connection is what’s lacking. As Gordon-Levitt shows us repetitive scenes of the rituals Jon follows, the pattern goes from humorous to understandable as a coping mechanism to vaguely sad.

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Somehow, the repetition works very well for the film and makes sure that humor carries the audience through the character arc.

Unfortunately for Jon, Barbara is subject to her own set of expectations and rituals. She’s the product of the Nicholas Sparks brand of romantic drivel, which Jon perceives as simply a woman’s version of the same preoccupations he has. His porn is tits, ass, and money shots. Barbara’s porn is love at first sight, contrived drama, and happy endings. Emotional porn, in other words. Neither of them is the least bit capable of recognizing each others’ real needs. Whenever things threaten to get real, they both retreat (aggressively) into their assumptions and prescriptions for what sex is like, what men and women are like, what love is like.

Though he exaggerates this stuff for effect, Gordon-Levitt also keeps it completely recognizable and relatable. I would challenge anyone to look at the way these characters think, talk, and act and not recognize something of themselves in it. My fiancee and I had a funny and nuanced discussion about where we fall in it after the movie. I think the ability to recognize yourself in Don Jon and handle it with a sense of humor and introspection is key to the movie’s power. If the audience lacks this ability, if the criticism makes them defensive, then it will fail for them in spite of its truly laudable intelligence and care.

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The looks on their faces? Those are their porn-receiving faces.

Not only is Don Jon full of great performances, nuanced characterization and subtext, and an overriding sense of humor, it also has some technical chops that serve its agenda. There’s the repetition I already talked about, as well as the use of cross-cutting and parallel shots to underscore the depth of similarity between Barbara and Jon. There’s a lot of Jon’s dead-eyed and vacant stare as he watches porn, and we also see Barbara’s wide-eyed rapture when the plot of the romantic comedy contrives its leads to finally live happily ever after.

When they finally break up, it’s over Jon’s addiction to porn. More than that, it’s over an underlying inability to accept the person you’re with for who they are. Beyond the specifics of gender politics that this film engages, there’s always that more fundamental issue of recognition failure. The true test of a relationship always comes down to whether or not you expect your partner to change to suit you. I think most people could come up with numerous examples of relationships they have or had, or have seen others have, where this is the root issue that makes sure things won’t work out. Objectification is Don Jon‘s real target, but it also points to selfishness and self-absorption as the seeds of objectification. This feels spot on.

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Julianne Moore is aces in this film.

Though it flirts with it, Don Jon avoids wrapping the self-discovery in a character. It’s convenient to do this, and there’s an extent to which Jon’s journey relies on another person (it’s all about connecting to someone after all), but the film keeps Jon in focus as the captain of his own ship. His curiosity and search for meaning are what brings out the truer self, the kind of person that Esther (Julianne Moore) can be heard by. Jon’s walls are already collapsing when he meets her, but not in some tear-streaked moment of cosmic realization. Jon’s whole head space is communicated in subtle ticks, breaks in his routine, questions he starts to ask (the confession scene is particularly exemplary of what I’m getting at), and the small ways he changes.

Esther is also a unique sort of love interest for a character like Jon. A less intelligent film would have introduced a manic pixie dream girl or dryly intellectual feminist with a soft spot for Jersey Shore. Instead, Esther is a weird but open-minded widow who handles Jon with wisdom and openness as opposed to caustic wit (though there’s a bit of that) and criticism. Her criticism is knowing and affectionate. She’s a mature woman, and completely outside of Jon’s normal scope for a romantic partner.

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A new and improved Jon explains why what a woman says matters as much as the numerical rating for her body.

There are going to be some who think Don Jon doesn’t go far enough. This was my first thought when the film ended. As a feminist and a man, I am pretty much the secondary target audience for the film. I think Gordon-Levitt wants to reach the people who are captured by the perceptions his movie criticizes, but it’s also a film for a mature audience and I’m not sure to what extent that audience exists without typically feminist attitudes about the roles of men and women in relationships, the problem of objectification, and the dichotomy between ritual and respect.

All that said, I think that where Jon is at the beginning vs. the end of the film is fine as is. It feels authentic. A lesser movie would dramatize the character’s evolution far more than Don Jon does. Instead, it’s about as dramatic as it is in real life. More confusion than revelation, more small changes than big ones.

Jon never turns into a crusader for equality between the sexes. This is a smart move for Gordon-Levitt as it will keep the film from alienating the more easily threatened members of its audience. Those people will likely find some way to take umbrage with this movie anyway, which is why they’re the ones who should be paying the most attention.

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