Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sex and the synthetic girl(s)

A shameless vanity project and an act of celebrity self-effacement, a half-disaster of an actor-turned-writer/director’s debut and a character study peppered with stray moments of resonant, if not exactly mind-blowing, truth, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon looks like a romantic comedy but is really a coming-of-age story about a guy forced to confront an addiction. To porn. Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) really does have a joyless, discovery-free, automaton-like sex life. He has sex to prove he can. Women never satisfy him and he doesn’t much enjoy satisfying them—he can’t see the point in cunnilingus aside from its usefulness as a bargaining tool for reciprocal pleasure. He takes far more pleasure in the rituals preceding sexual conquest, which involve he and his asinine buddies going to clubs and rating women as though at a cattle auction. Even more than this grotesque male bonding, Jon savours the ritual that follows his every act of intercourse, one that allows Gordon-Levitt to bathe his bulging pectorals in laptop screen light and provide with loads of free advertising. To be explicit: the only sex Jon actually enjoys is the kind that requires nothing more than a wireless signal and his right hand.

Deeply narcissistic, incapable of empathy, and anal-retentive-to-the-max, Jon is an ostentatiously ethnic, under-educated American Psycho. He attends church every Sunday, itemizes his sexploits in confession, cheerfully accepts his Hail-Marys, then visits his folks’ for bottles of Bud and Sunday supper, a ritual routinely derailed by his dad’s fixation on televised football—an addiction to rival Jon’s. In Don Jon’s obnoxious opening voice-over, Jon lists “the few things that matter” to him: “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.” That’s rather more than “a few,” but, to be fair, Jon’s dumbness is an intermittently successful running joke. There are laughs to be had, for example, in the bit where Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) uncovers evidence of Jon’s porn habit by simply scrolling through his browser’s history—a feature Jon somehow didn’t realize existed.

Who’s Barbara? She’s the "dime" (surely you didn't think women would  be spared from the characters' knee-jerk commodification?) that makes Jon wait for once. Rather than letting him into her bed, she makes Jon cream his jeans in the hall while talking in wanton tones about his attending night school and introducing her to his family. She is, we’ll swiftly discern, a mercilessly controlling sexist snob who won’t tolerate the idea of Jon cleaning his own apartment—another of his most beloved pastimes. Jon Sr. (Tony Danza) calls Barbara “a woman who can make a boy into a man,” which is another way of saying a mother. Barbara is one of three mother figures in Don Jon, the other two being Jon’s actual mother (a wonderful Glenne Headly) and Esther (Juliann Moore, also excellent), the older woman Jon meets in his night class who is at once a wildly eccentric, emotionally devastated mess and pretty much the only mature adult in the movie—not possessing the mentality of a 12-year-old, Esther, unlike Barbara, isn’t irreparably scandalized by Jon’s porn-love.

The real problem isn’t that Jon looks at porn but rather that it’s only through porn that he can lose himself. The counterintuitiveness is almost Zizekian: Jon looks to machines for intimacy and to human contact for mechanical release. The film’s aim is to convincingly reverse this—it’s maybe half-successful. Maybe. The supporting characters are all underwritten, yet the supporting actors are exceptionally good. The protagonist is hard to care about and Gordon-Levitt’s performance is at best amusing, yet moments in Jon’s journey ring true. Don Jon is in so many senses a masturbatory exercise. But it could have been so much worse. 

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