Don Jon is new-Hollywood-darling Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut film. Not as an actor, of course – JGL’s been wowing us since 3rd Rock from the Sun. But he wrote, directed and starred in Don Jon. And just in case Don Jon is too subtle for you (which is highly unlikely), JGL has stated clearly in numerous interviews (like this one) that he made Don Jon to critique our culture’s obsession with body image.
Don Jon uses a young man addicted to porn to illustrate how media has broken our whole culture.
Spoilers for Don Jon from this point forward!
Despite bountiful evidence that pornography is plentiful and dangerous, pornography use continues to increase. Don Jon introduces us to Jon (JGL), a young, single man on the prowl with his two best friends for a “dime” – a single woman who has the perfect physical appearance (on a scale of 1-10, hence “dime”). He tells us unapologetically that he prefers porn to sex with real women because real women cannot satisfy him the way his porn does. We see him having sex with a woman he picked up at a bar (an 8 or a 9, maybe), then sneaking out of bed to watch porn later that night.
Jon’s addiction to porn is a symptom of a larger body image problem that keeps him from any authentic relationships.
Jon’s primary relationship in the film is with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), an unquestionable dime. Barbra captivates Jon with her physical beauty and her brash refusal of his advances. But their relationship is doomed from the beginning. She wants to remake him in the image of a movie character; he knows she can never live up to the characters he watches. As a result, their relationship is truly never more than skin deep.
But Jon’s other relationships are equally shallow. He’s clearly uncomfortable with authentic conversations with his best friends. His family never has a conversation that plunges beyond the surface. All Jon’s relationships are one-sided, about what he can get, not what he can give.
But Don Jon doesn’t lay the blame for Jon’s dysfunction entirely on his addition. Or rather, the film presents Jon’s obsession with porn as one manifestation of a deeper dissatisfaction with his embodied reality. Jon’s whole life is about obtaining and maintaining a perfect physical world – he constantly works out and maintains a spotless living space and car.
Don Jon lays the blame for this unhealthy picture of our bodies on our whole culture.
Everything from the more obvious pornography and movie culture to (slightly) more subtle jabs at the advertising industry. Our culture clearly forms us to be dissatisfied with our bodies. Don Jon clearly wants to pull all our skeleton-thin models out of our closets and have this conversation in all its unsightly glory.
Because when you get right down to it, the picture Don Jon shows us of humanity is hideous. Barbara might be a dime, but she’s also shallow, thoughtless and rude. Jon is a nice enough guy, but clearly also selfish in his relationships. Jon’s parents aren’t any better. Even his sister Monica (Brie Larson), who offers a little affirmation at the end of the film, is constantly on her phone. Jon isn’t the only broken person in the film; everyone suffers to some degree.
Rather than leading the cultural conversation about body, the Church has little to say, as Don Jon points out.
Jon never misses Mass with his family. And he takes his weekly confession and accompanying penance seriously. On some level, Jon knows his lifestyle and relationships are unhealthy, even if he can’t explain why. When he receives a lesser penance the week he goes without watching porn, he’s genuinely thrilled. He clearly feels as though he’s making progress.
But toward the end of the film, when he hasn’t watched any porn and has slept only with Esther (Julianne Moore), yet receives the same penance, Jon is understandably frustrated. He sees that this religious system he’s been participating in, possibly the only sphere of his life he’s been fully engaging, has been just as fake as everything else.
Jon thought Church was one place that took his body and his soul seriously. When he learns the Church isn’t actually engaging him, something essential breaks. I was heartbroken to see his earnestness dashed when he realized the Church took him far less seriously than he took the Church.
Unfortunately, particularly when it comes to such awkward topics as our bodies and what to do with them, the Church is quick to hide behind pat answers. Rather than meeting people where they are and engaging their honest, awkward but authentic questions, we settle for oversimplified, meaningless clichés designed to kill conversation and protect our delicate sensibilities.
No wonder so many young, well-meaning people just like Jon don’t take the Church’s beliefs about our bodies seriously. The Church doesn’t take itself seriously enough to warrant attention. And without a compelling vision of what healthy, whole relationships could look like – a vision the Church could in fact provide were our theology up-to-century, Don Jon ultimately leaves us dissatisfied.
While Don Jon takes some steps in the right direction, its vision of healthy relationships doesn’t go far enough.
Jon finds healing in the person of Esther, an older woman who has recently lost her husband and son. Her brokenness draws her to Jon, and she teaches him that authentic relationships are built on giving yourself – in her words, “losing yourself in another person.” Jon has never loved like that, and he does find healing in their relationship.
The film ends with them, together, lost in each other. No future, no past. Just lost together in the present. And while they are both unquestionably in a better place than they were at the beginning of the film, we can’t help but wonder if there isn’t meant to be more.
This, specifically, is where a Christian vision of personhood and of marriage (not to mention body and grieving) could’ve helped both Jon and Esther. But they’ve both been left without a larger community that can meet them in their brokenness and help them heal.
They find each other, and find some healing in losing themselves in each other. But “better than nothing” isn’t the same as “healthy and whole”. Still, I left rooting for both Jon and Esther, hoping that they’ll both continue their journey toward wholeness.