The first scene of Don Jon (written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also stars) features "The Don" Jon and two of his friends standing in a club, evaluating the appearance of every woman there. It's the pronouns that are important here: "It's a dime!" says one of Jon's friends (meaning a perfect ten out of ten). "Naw," Jon responds, "Maybe it's an eight. Maybe."
And so every viewer in the audience gears up for an object lesson about the Dangers of Objectifying Women, or the Soul-Withering Effects of Pornography, or something—but Don Jon is about something bigger than an addiction to pornography. There's never a moment where his porn addiction is treated like a "sin" in anything other than a nominal sense, as when Jon describes his actions to a faceless priest. No, for Levitt, porn is just a case study for what the film really cares about: why do we feel so alone?
Jon sleeps with different women every night, but still slips out of the arms of the woman beside him to go and watch porn. "I think I like porn better than [sex]," he says (though employing a more vulgar term). "I just lose myself in it, in a way I don't when I'm [having sex]." But when Jon decides it's time to get a girlfriend, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he realizes that she has her escapist fantasies, too. She sits in the theater and watches (staring at the camera wide-eyed and rapturous) as the film-within-a-film follows your traditional rom-com structure: meet, fall in love, break up, get back together, get married, ride off into the sunset. The cinematography emphasizes what Jon later makes explicit, at least in thought: "You escape into your movies just as much as I escape into porn."
At home, Jon's dad (Tony Danza) can't go five seconds without football on the TV; his mom (Glenne Headley) tells stories from when she and Danza were young, trying to reconstruct a fantasy that's pretty heavily implied never existed. In what becomes a five-time running gag, Jon's sister (Brie Larson) is never without her cell phone, even in the middle of Mass, or dinner, and never (with one exception) interacts with the family in any way.
And then there's Esther (Julianne Moore), an adult learner in Jon's college class, whose secret is that she cries alone, a lot (maybe as much as every half hour or so, by her own estimates). Any time Esther is outside of class, she is either smoking weed, or having sex, or crying; there is nothing else, anymore, for her.
Which means that maybe the first criticism you can level against Don Jon—that it's just slightly too on-the-nose, all the time, with lines like "I could quit watching porn if I wanted to," or entire conversational digressions about what void it fills in his life—is pretty much invalid, in a way it wouldn't be if the movie was just about the Dangers of Porn Addiction. Levitt delves so deeply into Jon's central fixation because it illuminates everything at the fringes of the movie. It's through the lens of Jon's absolute all-consuming desire to "lose himself" in pornography that his father's television habits make more sense, or his sister's ceaseless texting, or Barbara's obsession with the idea that "When a man loves you, he won't mind doing anything for you—that's what love is."
Recently, foul-mouthed philosopher king Louis C.K. made an appearance on Conan O'Brien's show, where he discussed why he doesn't want his daughters to have cell phones. His reason boils down to this: if you're always entertained, and connected with other people, and distracted, and so on, then you never come face-to-face with what C.K. calls the "Forever Empty"—the innate human capacity for crushing loneliness and existential fear and dread and, above all, hopeless solipsism, the feeling like we're so profoundly disconnected from everything else there is that there's no hope of even trying to reach out to someone else for any purpose beyond self-gratification.
(One of Jon's women says, "When you have sex with me, it's like I'm not even there. Like I don't even exist.")
C.K.'s point is that we, as humans, engage in myriad self-destructive behaviors because they allow us to escape, with dental-dermal closeness, from experiencing real loneliness and isolation.
C.S. Lewis made a similar point, though it's frequently and incorrectly twisted to be saccharine. When Lewis claims, "If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world"—yes, one response to that is to be happy at the idea of being whole and satisfied.
But what's so frequently omitted from the discussion is that we're still in this world, even if we're not of it. That our entire life will be lived with this feeling of a thing inside us that feels like loneliness, or emptiness, or fear, or hurt. That feeling drives all of Don Jon, start to messy finish, every character pursuing in some way what he or she sees to be fullness of life. And all of them come up short.
Don Jon can link its metaphysical and emotional roots, as such, to some of the best work of P.T. Anderson and David Foster Wallace, particularly in Anderson's 2012 film The Master and Wallace's 1999 short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. (The film has more links to Anderson, too: Julianne Moore's casting seems to reference to her similarly Jocastian character in Boogie Nights, and the film cribs stylistically from the more formally inventive moments of Magnolia.)
All these works have a complex core obsession, as phrased earlier: why do we feel so alone? What's keeping us from—as Jon repeats over and over—"losing ourselves" in another human? And how do we stop feeling that way? And what do we do to change?
The Master, Brief Interviews, and Don Jon all pose the same answer to the question of "what do we do to solve the problem of loneliness": sex. "Making love." Feeling whole with someone else requires physically being whole with someone else. It's the closing shot of both The Master and Don Jon, and Brief Interviews ends on a story that frames a similar encounter, of being made whole through sexual contact with someone who's able to connect with you. All three works draw a fairly sharp distinction between just sex—between the kind of sex conjured up by the sorts of slurs Jon and his friends use at the beginning of the movie—and "making love," a phrase Jon employs in an adorably un-ironic way at the end of the movie.
What I imagine some people will miss if they attack Don Jon for its answer to this question, and for its constant stream of fairly graphic sexual content, is that if we say that the answer the movie provides is "short-sighted" or incomplete or incorrect or something, we are obligated to present an alternative.
In the mammarial frenzy of movies like Don Jon, it's easy (in the heat of righteous indignation) to forget that for hundreds of thousands of people walking around every day in just your city alone (assuming yours is a small city), sex really is the best answer they have. So striking at the content of the film as "immoral" or "detestable" or whatever may not be technically incorrect, but it also profoundly misses the point, and is at best unhelpful.
Don Jon chronicles the journey of a man who moves from implicitly nihilistic hedonism to something more communal, more shared, and more loving. Just because his growth is incomplete doesn't mean that the whole work is false or forfeit. After all, we live in a culture that teaches us, 24/7, day in and day out, that men are there to have sex and women are there to have sex with, that sex is something you do to have fun, and that connection and love and emotional bonding are all cute but outdated concepts, that really everything is empty and hollow and so you might as well enjoy the hollow empty party because the lights go out at midnight, and there's nothing after that.
Don Jon tries to suggest an alternative. And even if it's a deliberately incomplete answer, even if it's surrounded by deep trenches of sexual content, even if we don't entirely agree—I want to champion it and call it good, if just not enough. Some art revels in its own absent heart, in the hollowness of everything presented, in pointing out that, as an artist, they're just a jester in a broken and irreparable system. But then some art sees that something is wrong, that we're having a cultural heart attack, and tries to diagnose us, to help re-orient our hearts and minds around something better.
Don Jon is staunchly the latter, and deserves recommendation on those merits alone: for being true to life, even when life is ugly and sexual and gross, but also for not stopping there. It is not content to just entertain itself with or take advantage of the present brokenness of the world, but tries to point upwards or outwards or something, to somewhere else, even with an undefined or crude notion of where that place is.
And in a culture that celebrates the most immediate and short-lived of human experiences, good art should point to something more permanent, but not be so ethereal that people can't connect with the message. Maybe Don Jon doesn't walk the line carefully enough, and sits a little more towards the worldly side of things than the transcendent. But making an honest and deeply human attempt to even do so is something to be treasured.
The confusing thing about writing a content warning section for Don Jon is that, if you're a young male, you're likely part of the target audience for both the movie and the object of the movie, which places the sexual content firmly in the realm of the familiar.
To wit: the movie has likely hundreds of clips of pornography spliced in—naked breasts are shown, people gyrate, and there are strong implications of oral sex that are only obscured by clever editing. It's all very dirty-feeling and ugly and unappealing; the literal last thing in the world that this movie does is glorify porn. Jon has sexual encounters with lots of women, and they're almost all shown in varying states of undress. Jon and Barbara stretch the word "foreplay" until it just about breaks in two. Hundreds of swear words, predominately "f--k" and derivatives (luckily no integrals of "f--k").
And let me just be totally, transparently clear, here: this movie pushes the bounds of an R-rating just about as far as it'll go (Gordon-Levitt had to edit it down from an NC-17). Those who don't mind may find it funny, but for the Christian viewer, especially one that either struggles or is present in the life of someone who struggles with the issue, it would be both maybe hurtful to see those images again, and insanely uncomfortable to see with a spouse or girlfriend or something. It's just a case of everything being too real, all the dirty laundry of the lies men tell hung out to dry, and for some it may be too much.
Jackson Cuidon is a writer in New York City. You can follow him on his semi-annually updated Twitter account: @jxscott