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Jenni Miller

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Jenni Miller is a freelance writer in New York City. Inquire within!

Filminism: ‘Don Jon’ Climaxes Too Soon

Joseph-Gordon-Levitt-in-Don-Jon-2013-Movie-Image

Filminism is a column about representations of women in film. It runs on Fridays. 

The pull-out method works for movies more than it does in real life, but the ending of “Don Jon” is particularly abrupt.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut is the latest salvo in the jumbled-up battle between porn and intimacy, romantic comedies and unreasonable expectations, but “Don Jon” isn’t nearly nuanced enough to satisfy.

[Significant plot points about the ending of "Don Jon" are briefly mentioned below]

“Don Jon” juxtaposes a porn-hound “Jersey Shore” dude with a romcom-obsessed babe, the lesson being that the media we consume gives us unrealistic ideas about love and sex. That’s a decent idea to begin exploring, and it would be easy to watch Jon (JGL) and Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) flirt and fight for an entire movie, with a neat ending that would make the Barbaras of the world snap their gum with glee. Although the movie swerves away from such a simple, easy happy ending, it perpetuates the stereotypes it’s trying to dismantle.

The most cringingly funny scene in the movie is when Barbara is showing Jon just how this relationship is gonna go. Nope, he’s not invited in to her apartment, but she allows him to grind against her incredible rump to completion while she coos demands. She wants to meet his friends and his family, she wants him to go back to school, and though she stops short of demanding a ring on the spot, Jon would have been powerless to say anything but yes. (His pile of stained laundry makes it clear that this is her modus operandi for quite a while.)

It’s not clear what power Barbara holds over him other than sex and her status as a “dime,” but she trains him to acquiesce to her every whim. Almost. Because even though he’s madly in love with her, she still can’t or won’t do the things porn stars do, freely and gleefully. The dizzying display available online is the only thing that really satisfies Jon, and when another character gently questions him about his fascination with porn, he explains it’s because it’s the only way he can fully lose himself.

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Except that Barbara isn’t fully developed enough to even offer a chance at connection. She is, as Jon and his lecherous dad Jon Senior (Tony Danza) refer to her, a thing. An item to be collected and shown off, far more glamorous than the apartment Jon keeps scrubbed and shining, but no more alive than the laptop he sneaks off to in the middle of the night. Jon is an unreliable narrator, but this is more than his total disinterest in Barbara’s inner life; this is a lack of one to speak of, a problem with the development of the character herself.

It’s just when Jon is heartbroken and desperate enough to bang a woman he goes to night class with – an older, somewhat bohemian woman struggling with grief – that he is opened up to the possibilities of intimacy. It’s not a pretty scene; Jon simply needs a receptacle for his frustration, and Esther is sort of taken aback but generally cool with it. She comes off as a flake with poor boundaries, someone that Jon has wholeheartedly rejected with both hands until he has nothing and no one left. The introduction of Esther helps the movie comes so very close to achieving the depth it’s reaching for… And then it ends.

Julianne Moore plays this weirdly endearing mess who, aside from a few nods to her own emotional turmoil, helps Jon see that “real p***y,” as Jon calls it, can be as good or even better than watching porn by yourself. Although the very subtle implication is that Esther finds their relationship as healing as Jon does, for very different reasons, we never get far enough out of Jon’s head to see it.

Esther isn’t featured as prominently in the marketing for “Don Jon,” but she’s much, much more interesting. Unfortunately, the majority of the movie focuses its efforts on establishing Jon’s obsession with appearances and his vapid relationship with Barbara, only to end just as he’s opening up to Esther. I have no problem watching Jon’s eyes glaze over while clicking through Pornhub.com, but I’d have much rather watched a few extra scenes of him smoking joints with Esther while she calls him out on his brand of bullsh*t than another montage of heavily edited porn clips.

This idea of what’s really real is an ongoing, exhausting theme. Barbara is too hot to be real. As Jon Senior leers: are her boobs real? What about her butt? What about the porn Jon watches – is that real? What makes it more or less real than the one-sided sex Jon is already having? When Esther notices Jon is watching porn on his cell phone during their class, Esther brings him a DVD that’s apparently different than the stuff he prefers. A glimpse at the cover insinuates a curvy body and ’70s pubes, something one might find in a feminist-minded sex shop, or perhaps that’s just how my mind filled in the blank. You can guess that’s what it would be, anyway, given Esther’s weirdo vibe and pointed lack of makeup. It’s practically as simplistic as a YouTube video contrasting porn and the kind of sex “real people” have. (People who do porn aren’t real, either! Didn’t you know?)

“Don Jon” queasily sidesteps fully exploring their intimacy, ending shortly after Jon stops slicking back his hair into a grotesque helmet and lifting weights while chanting Hail Marys. Esther’s only purpose is to serve as a catalyst for his transformation, and in a particularly irksome scene, she suggests a bath. She doesn’t join him, and whether that’s a last minute decision or her original plan, this symbolic baptism leaves a bad aftertaste. Somehow, we’re supposed to believe that this relationship is weightier and more emotionally fulfilling because listening to her talk gives him an erection. In the end, it all comes down to Don’s Jon.

“Don Jon” opens in theaters today.


Categories: Columns

Tags: Columns, Don Jon, Filminism, Jenni Miller, Joseph gordon-levitt, Julianne moore, Scarlett johansson, Sex, Tony Danza

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