Not-so subtle ‘Don Jon’

Technews Writer
Sat Oct 19, 2013
At one point in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis asks the reader to imagine a scene completely foreign to our cultural experience: a strip-tease.  Not a strip-tease of human flesh, however, but a strip-tease of mutton-chop; the slow and erotic removal of a sheet covering a plate of steaming-hot mutton. What would we think of those people, Lewis asks the reader?  Surely, their instinct for food has gone awry. Just so—he relates—has our sex instinct.
The metaphor is similar to, but not altogether fitting to be entirely imposed on, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” (his full-length feature directorial debut).  Though Gordon-Levitt (who also wrote the film) has a similar message, his absurdist take is less subtle and his message is focused more on sexual aberration in pornography addiction, per se, rather than sex-addiction as sexual aberration of human culture at large.
This last point certainly does not aim to discredit Gordon-Levitt’s product. On the contrary, “Don Jon” is incredibly refreshing in its style and voice; a welcomed departure from the Hollywood mold. Dealing with a typically taboo subject (i.e. pornography addiction), Gordon-Levitt tackles the subject courageously and does not yield or pull any punches so as to fit the experience with our socially-puritanical posture towards it. Through its visually and psychologically-jarring lens, “Don Jon” shows us how pornography is a means to control, essentially an avoidance of the true vulnerability at the heart of any intimate relationship.
The film’s progress (a bit meandering at times) is marked by the rapid display of lively-colored photos and video clips depicting the icons and sexual acts of Don’s (Gordon-Levitt) worship. These montages are not explicitly pornographic, but they are not at all doctored—merely cropped—so the audience itself is forced to confront the very thing which holds Don in an iron vice of habit, the demon with the two backs, if you will.
The conclusion, as I alluded, is positive (albeit, to me, in a somewhat mediocre way) and comes about through Don’s interactions with Esther, played by Julianne Moore—who, playing to her usual character, nicely captures the tragic depression of a woman who has lost all she loved. In each other they both find someone whom they can lose themselves in sexually—which sounds to me like a stilted, sexual compromise just slightly better than anonymous sex with strangers or getting lost in pornography, not the true human intimacy upon which relationships are formed, but small steps.
In sum, Gordon-Levitt brings a fresh vision and voice to the screen. Though he leaves unfinished some plot strands (e.g. family, religion) and juggles awkwardly with thematic devices that bring some discordance to the film’s vision as a whole, Gordon-Levitt shows a lot of promise with “Don Jon” and will hopefully continue to shock, challenge, and entertain us for years in the future.

Appears in
2013 - Fall - Issue 7