“My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn,” New Jersey boy Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) mechanically recites his list of favorite things during his inner monologue. Although he lists porn last, in Jon’s life it reigns supreme and consumes his thoughts. Jon watches it every day and sees real women as objects to be use, abuse, and lose. His friends reverently nickname him “Don” because of the hordes of women his good looks and swagger manage to attract at the clubs.
Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) is a beautiful blonde looking for everlasting love. She was raised on syrupy sweet romantic comedies and longs for her own handsome Prince Charming to whisk her away, provide for her, and eventually start a family with her.
One night, Jon and Barbara’s paths cross at the club. Jon’s friends point the “dime” (incredibly good-looking woman) hanging out at the bar and the slick Jersey boy sidles up to pursue her.
Their eyes meet. Their gaze lingers. The beat drops. They fall in “love.”
And expectations clash.
The two lovers fail to realize they are living in two completely different movies, and Don Jon shows the eerie parallels between pornography and romantic comedies. The plot suddenly gets a Harold and Maude vibe once Esther (Julianne Moore) arrives, wielding a more “grown-up” view of relationships that she shares with Jon, who in turn starts to foster feelings for her.
Rather than being just a cautionary tale against the evils of porn, Don Jon instead condemns the power that unrealistic expectations set by media have over us…and the loneliness, alienation, and selfishness that inevitably follow.
For an R-rated comedy, there are a lot of deep ideas at play: how has our culture and the media we consume trained us to behave and think in certain ways when it comes to our own “real” relationships? What do we expect from others as a result of the media’s portrayals of relationships and sex?
How do we know what is real and what is fake?
One particular scene shows the blurred lines between reality and fantasy: Jon and Barbara are eating dinner during a date when clips of a pornographic video Jon watched earlier start to appear in small flashes as they talk, showing us what is popping up in Jon’s mind as he and his date discuss their regular lives. Barbara, in turn, hears heartfelt music whenever something happens that is stereotypical of a romantic comedy.
Gordon-Levitt and Johansson churn out strong acting performances and nobody in the cast feels out of place. These characters could easily be one-dimensional, but there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. Tony Danza is pitch perfect as Jon’s boorish father. While his screentime is minimal, it’s enough to know where Jon picked up some of his worldviews.
By regular Hollywood standards, Don Jon feels like it skips from genre to genre with nary a worry or care, but that’s the point. It’s not because Don Jon doesn’t know what it wants to be, but because it knows what different members of the audience expect and thus highlights how these fantasies and expectations collide in our real-life relationships and often hinder our growth as human beings. Don Jon may be about porn and sexualization in media, but it shows these images for a reason and doesn’t glamorize them. What we’re left with is a smart comedy that discusses gender roles, media effects, and still manages to elicit laughs with its upfront take on heavy subjects.