Expectations are funny things. They very often define our experience of life, our reactions to the events, situations and relationships we find ourselves in. The intriguing part, at least to me, is how little aware of our expectations we seem to be. How they obviously they inform our reactions to situations and events, but how unquestioned and unarticulated we often leave them. We are implicitly aware of our own desires and goals, but not always do we know where they come from or even if they are really what we should fairly desire from any given situation or person. They’re tricky, vague and often partially hidden from they very minds they reside in.
I begin with this observation because I think you could make a case that our expectations, and specifically the damage done by unquestioned selfish expectations, is, if not the central idea underpinning Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon then pretty close to it. It is a constant undercurrent, a tug of war where each person, in engaging with those around them, has a whole constellation of expectations which they hold for those they interact with to fulfil.
Jon (christened ‘Don Jon’ by his friends for his ability to get with whichever woman he wants, played by Gordon Levitt) has a simple routine life that revolves around his car, keeping his pad nice, picking up girls, visiting his family and church, and watching porn. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that one of these has a more central place than the rest (1). Even in the midst of his own frequent sexual encounters, actual real ones with real people, Jon can’t escape the fantasy world he enters in front of his Macbook with a box of tissues to hand. (Look for the amusing use of Mac sound effects here, and possibly have them ruined for you forever). Jon can’t find real satisfaction with these women because whatever he gets from porn just isn’t there in real life.
Things don’t stay routine for long though. One night in a club, Jon meets Barbara (Scarlet Johansson), who is “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” But unlike previous women, Barbara strings him along, and Jon doesn’t get what he wants when he’s used to getting it. This time he has to put some real work in, and develop an long-term relationship that leads him to declare, to his friends shock, that he is “in love.”
Barbara though has her own expectations to be met. They go on a date, Barbara wants to see a movie. Jon watches porn and can’t see the point of watching movies. He slaps us over the head with an irony: “Everybody knows its fake, but they watch it like it’s real life.”
Barbara loves movies, anything romantic with sighing women and gallant men. In a clever twist Barbarra watching a rom-com is intercut and shot to look a lot like Jon watching another porno.
“He’s just such a real man,” she comments as they leave the cinema.
All Barbara wants is a fantasy guy who is sexy and confident and just generally that guy from every romantic drama and rom-com ever. All Jon wants from Barbara is sex with Barbara, but sex that works like porn does. How is a relationship meant to work when people have unreasonable expectations for the one their with?
Answer: it doesn’t.
It’s not giving away much to say that the answer is in realizing that relationships have to flow both ways. That engaging with another person (in sex or in any of the other myriad ways that people interact in relationships) can’t be a thing done simply for yourself and to meet your own needs. Jon’s change of view comes about through the introduction of another character, very different to Barbara the stereotypical-sexy blond-beauty: Esther (Julianne Moore), who is hurting and broken. Jon’s transition from selfish sex-brat to other centered…lover, is somewhat abrupt and artificial, but this is not a story about porn or sex addiction. It turns out that Jon isn’t really so much addicted to porn as he is to himself.
Barbara and Jon have a post-break up talk: “When a real man loves a woman he doesn’t mind doing things for her… he’ll do anything for her.” But Jon is catching on: “Don’t you think that sounds a little bit one sided?”
The path of Jon’s story is pretty much obvious from the first five minutes, it may satire and poke at the most obvious elements of the genre that it, more or less, sits in, and deliberately subvert what the expected ending looks like, but it never manages the genre-breaking twists or laughs I was hoping for (though I did laugh all the same). Apart from Jon, no character changes or learns anything, though this is of course his movie. This all may have been more interesting (and perhaps more poignant) had Gordon-Levitt made more of fleshing out the female side of things: Barbara and her romantic dreams have the same problem as Jon and his porn, but Barbara is ultimately just another pretty cliché, a shallow stereotype played that way deliberately, but less interesting because of it (2). Almost a didactic wry smile, if that’s a thing, as are Jon’s parents. It’s up to Jon and Esther to do the business of actually being real people. But I may be being a little unfair. As simple as all these characters are, they’re well played. Funny and human enough to hold our attention, even as we’re drawn to criticize their very obvious mistakes. And Gordon Levitt himself somehow manages to make Jon completely likable despite the fact that he does nothing to earn our respect until the last quarter of the film.
One last relationship in the film is worth an observation: Jon’s relationship with his church, which he goes to weekly with his family, and visits the confessional booth. We watch Jon, regular as clockwork:
“Forgive me father for I have sinned, it has been one week since my last confession. This week I had intercourse outside of wedlock three times and watched pornographic movies and masturbated eleven times. For this and all my sins I am sorry.”
We watch Jon through the priest’s side of the grill, his face square on the screen like on a TV. The score comes back: “Ten Lord’s prayers and 15 Hail Mary’s.” The curtain shuts till next week.
Jon does his Hail Mary’s while crunching and curling and generally getting buff at his gym. He returns the next week for the same statement and the same result, but his occasional questions to whoever’s on the other side of the box (“Are you even the same guy as the last time?”), and any desire for genuine counsel, go unanswered. All he gets is the same mathematical response.
As one-sided a relationship as any in Jon’s life.
Don Jon is available to rent or buy, n stuff. Rated MA, more info here.
(1) If you’re wondering the answer is, yes, Don Jon does show a fair bit of footage from actual porn as a part of telling Jon’s story. We’re looking at his thought life, after all. What you actually get shown is fairly edited and largely limited to nudity and a lot of panting and other noises. I don’t recall actual sex acts being shown. Nevertheless, it is unpleasant. So, you know, exercise discretion (but you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?). If that sounds like something you’d rather not watch for any reason, then don’t.
This of course raises another question: does showing porn in a movie that questions the same undercut the film’s message? Is Don Jon actually all that interested in critiquing porn? Should it be? It has plenty to say about it’s effect on a guy’s life, what about it’s affect on women? What about women who find themselves victims of the sex industry? Not questions the movie is interested in pursuing. Should it be?
(2) Another thread that runs through Don Jon is how women are presented to the world through various forms of visual media. They’re itemized and ogled and rated and scored. It’s not a new observation, but as it’s disgusting and shows no sign of going away as an issue any time soon, it’s nice to see a – relatively – mainstream movie put the boot in. (but see my questions in the foot note above)