Two things are readily apparent on the basis of Don Jon. First, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is clearly a talented filmmaker and a thoughtful, empathetic storyteller. Second, the guy has obviously never been caught in the grip of true addiction. In this, Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a writer-director, addiction — specifically, porn addiction — is the force that drives the drama… and the comedy. Yet as keen as the filmmaker’s gaze is for identifying porn as a legit addiction, and as daring as he is for tackling the subject head-on in a mainstream American film, the key missing ingredient is identification. The film’s heart is in the right place, but that heart may be so big that it obscures the ugly reality of addiction.
Gordon-Levitt himself may have wizened to that fact, since he changed the title — the film was originally dubbed Don Jon’s Addiction — when the film played at SXSW earlier this year, claiming that his story had less to do with addiction than objectification and human disconnect. To an extent, he’s right. Don Jon does explore the pitfalls of objectification, and its analysis is spot-on: it distorts reality, poisons the soul, damages relationships, and ultimately prohibits legitimate human connections. But while “addiction” can be removed from a title, it cannot be removed from a film in which it is the central character’s fuel. It’s one problem to view women, and sex, as objects. That problem deepens, however, when one can’t function without those objects. Objectification and addiction can be mutually exclusive, but they often are not, and they are inextricably connected in the world of this film.
Granted, that world is a little elevated from the dirge of realism, since Gordon-Levitt employs a tricky tone in which broad comedy and caricatures are employed as a genial primer. The titular hero, Jon (played by Gordon-Levitt), is like a Jersey Shore reject whose opening narration plays like an explication of that series’ oft-repeated “Gym-Tan-Laundry” mantra. His dad (Tony Danza) is an over-aggressive Italian patriarch who only wears wife-beater tank-tops and must always watch football at the dinner table. Jon’s latest conquest is Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a mouthy, upper-crust Jersey “dime.” These overt stereotypes function as a guise before the story reveals its seedy underbelly: Jon, chiseled lothario though he is, can’t go a single day without watching and pleasuring himself to porn. Such a visceral, taboo conflict seems to fly in the face of the film’s more rollicking opening act, but Don Jon nevertheless maintains a light touch throughout.
That lightness might, eventually, be its most nagging flaw. Not that the stereotypes are offensive — they are goofy but benign. More malignant is the way Gordon-Levitt, in a painstaking attempt to keep his screenplay to 90 concise pages, hurtles towards a pat conclusion just as the story exposes the ugliness of porn addiction and hints at its relentless stranglehold. Jon begins the film making light of his “casual” consumption of porn, open and unashamed… even a little proud. But as his relationship with Barbara — who clings to traditional values and expects Jon to stay faithful — progresses, shame takes over. The porn experience supplants the human sexual experience as Jon’s most sought-after pleasure. He begins lying about the frequency of his viewing sessions, even lying about the act of viewing itself. The thought of abstaining from porn at first strikes Jon as silly, then eventually reveals itself as impossible to bear. These actions are all telltale signs of addiction, but just as the film acknowledges them, it dismisses their seriousness by employing standard romantic conventions… sweet, but far too simple to escape the complicated terrain the film charts for itself.
Julianne Moore turns up as a wise, experienced woman Jon meets at night school. She imparts all the sage advice Jon might need to escape porn’s stranglehold, most specifically that porn is an elevated fantasy that shuts one off from reality, and in order to overcome its grasp one must truly lose oneself in another (real) person. This advice is passed off as earth-shattering, when it should be obvious to anyone not as self-absorbed as Jon. It also simplifies the continual struggle that any addict faces, especially after they first quit. That Gordon-Levitt is willing to delve into this subject is laudable. That he isn’t willing to follow it to its messy and difficult conclusion is unfortunate. Don Jon is like Step 1 of a richer, more nuanced, 12-step movie.