Sunday, September 29, 2013

Starring David Duchovny and Sierra Sinn


A very fun comedy about how Internet porn is transforming society, albeit seemingly made by a person current with Western culture only up to about the mid-1990s.

Written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt
With Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jon Martello Jr.), Scarlett Johannson (Barbara Sugarman), Julianne Moore (Esther), Tony Danza (Jon Martello Sr.), Glenne Headly (Angela Martello), Brie Larson (Monica Martello), Rob Brown (Bobby), and Jeremy Luke (Danny)

Spoiler alert: moderate
Content warning: it's a movie about porn, it's a movie about jerking off, therefore the words "porn" and "jerking off," and many fine technical terms besides, are going to be used.

 Do you remember that great romantic comedy, Eyes Wide Shut?  Sure, doesn't everybody?  My point is, if Tom Cruise had had the Internet, he could've saved a lot on cab fare and costume rental, and arrived at the same or better results.

My other point is, like Eyes Wide Shut, Don Jon was made for adults.  Not just because it has about five to ten minutes worth of sexually explicit material (in the form of pornographic clips), and also like Eyes Wide Shut reportedly had to contort itself on a few of the more intense occasions in order to secure a less-than-NC-17 rating.  Nor is it because Tony Danza says the word "fuck" a lot, although that is worthwhile.  It's a movie for adults because it deals with genuinely adult issues.  It's therefore something of a shame that when it finally comes time for its characters to address them, they're lucky enough to address them through magic.  That is because, unlike Eyes Wide Shut, it was made for adults who have adult feelings and, perhaps, have had adult experiences, but still possess only the emotional maturity of a child.

To get it out of the way, I still liked Don Jon.  I liked it because it's funny.  I liked it because it's engaging even when it fully commits itself to the alternate dimension it decides its characters shall inhabit.  I liked it because I like its writer, director, star, and key grip, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  I liked it because it tries, bless its heart, to explore the concept of masturbation, why we do it, and what it's good for, which is something not very many movies are about, even though a sizable percentage of our time on this planet is occupied by the task and thoughts of sex are rarely away from our mental focus.  And I liked it because it escapes the structure of the traditional romantic comedy—even if, at the end, it does not quite escape the genre's black hole of emotional fantasy.  I regret that I could not like it because it had anything important, new, or even particularly truthful to say about romance, relationships, pornography, masturbation, addiction, or humans.

"Don" Jon Martello is an alpha male super-bro with a clearly-defined value system and a disciplined weekly routine.  He works ("in the service industry"), goes to the gym, takes care of his cherry 1971 Chevy Chevelle SS, cleans his house with a Danny Tanner-level attention to detail, goes drinking with a pair of much lamer buddies whose weak existence validates his own (this is implied), picks up an eight out of ten or better, proceeds to have sex with her, is invariably disappointed, and so sneaks off to masturbate to Internet porn, goes back to sleep, and never calls her after she wakes up and leaves.

I dunno if I'm seeing the conflict in your screenplay, Joe.

Yes, his life, while in many ways awesome, has nonetheless grown tedious, and he seeks a change.  Don Jon  is probably a better movie, and certainly is far more subtle a movie, about this quarter-life crisis than it is about its more explicit subject matter.

Because Jon is unwise, Jon thinks that all he needs to correct himself is a long-term, committed relationship with the hottest woman he can get.  Because he is exceedingly unwise, he pursues, and is in return ensnared by, one of the more hissable villains of 2013, Barbara Sugarman.

Barbara is a shrew.  A harpy.  Although she proves a harder target than Jon's previous partners, she's rather well-acquainted with country matters.  If you get my drift.  If I were talking about an actual person, or even an actual character, that would be pretty misogynist.  Luckily, Barbara is less like a human and more like a collection of negative traits, such as are routinely applied one at a time to female characters, here applied all at once, that happens to look like Scarlett Johannson.

Ironically, she's a real jerkoff.

She's prudish but not so prudish she can't use a dry hump as a weapon.  Furthermore, she's mean, she's classist, she's manipulative, she's undermining, she's controlling, she's empty, and I think she's kind of dumb, too.  But she does look like Scarlett Johannson, and that can cloak even the most obvious interior flaws, if you're of the ScarJo persuasion, and most are.  Unfortunately, despite the indubitable visual stimulation, and although it takes Jon a lot of effort to get there, sex with Barbara still isn't great (or good).  Again frustrated, he turns to the cure for what ails you, but this time he gets caught.  Given the way she reacts, you'd think he was watching child pornography.

He lies, badly, and for the moment "gets away" with his transgression, but only once she extracts a promise that he'll never watch porn again.

"I'm just a big von Trier fan.  Chaos reigns, babe." 

This is obviously fair.  After all, he's got her, right?

The normal person's reaction, in 2013, is, "Is this woman for real?"  And, no, of course she isn't.  It's a movie, silly.  No one of her age, in this era, and still this incapable of communication, compromise, and connection really exists, and if she does, she'll die alone and unloved, and human fitness will be improved because her eggs have the bad person gene in them and do not need to be propagated.

Don Jon originally bore the significantly less suave title Don Jon's Addiction.  (In Russia, it's still Strasti Don Zhuana—The Passion of Don Jon.)  Jon admits, in voiceover and eventually to a friend, that he actively prefers sex with less than two participants.  This is a revelation which seems to ask why he chases after women with such vigor in the first place, but it actually doesn't.

Leaving aside the fact that this is America, by God, and rugged individualism is our birthright, it's easy to see why intercourse bores him: the sex he has with his one night stands is objectively bad.

I will say this.  Since this is a movie, and in the movies women who are labeled eights are in reality what Don Jon would call a "dime," one is very thankful that the fundamental attractiveness of his sex partners, in comparison to the women in porn, is not made an issue.  This is a wise move, especially given that porn, taken as a whole, is demonstrably more inclusive of women and men representative of the population at large than any Hollywood movie you've ever seen and are ever likely to see, maybe especially this one.  Instead, what Jon feels that he is denied is the dynamism of the ultrasex he sees on his laptop screen.

It's still fake, right?  Jon resists the idea; another character says, "Of course it is."  Well, yes, it's plotted and edited and acting is involved.  Duh.  The idea of unlimited sexual access is the fantasy being sold; orgasms are often faked (occasionally even by guys, thanks to the very old, and ruinously transparent, pina colada mix trick); and no doubt attraction often is as well.  But, you know, for the most part, porn is the only genre in cinema where the stunts are still largely real.

The old "And then they cut to the guy's face!" gag makes its obligatory appearance in Jon's soliloquy about porn-assisted masturbation.  This is an editing technique from the 1970s.  It's used to compress time—in this case, compressing the time the actor spends jerking off for however long it took in real life to achieve orgasm, and sometimes to hide the fact he didn't, because my goodness, Sex Is Terrifying—and it fell out of favor a long time ago, probably before stand-up comedians in the 1990s picked up the banner of more anonymous male talent.  It is pretty rarely used in modern pornography.  I won't insult your intelligence by underlining my point here.

Jon explains that he can "lose [himself]" in porn in a way he can't with real women.  Thus we have our hypothesis—it's a psychological issue.  And the movie treats this hypothesis as a physical law even though it never quite gets around to proving it.

Jon is specific in his complaints about sex.  They seem to me like real issues.  They're only partly based on anything I recognize as accurate or sensical, but I guess they're pretty valid within the limits of his paradoxically puritanical sex life.

He whines about condoms but won't fuck a girl more than once—an STD panel and hormonal birth control and/or a little self-control obviate the need for condoms (and my experience is, nobody likes them, it's not just men).  He whines about not getting head but gives it reluctantly—quid pro quo, Jon, yes or no?  He whines that women only like missionary—I assume JGL himself is not a virgin, so how did he even manage to write this line?  He whines that they don't like "money shots"—okay, firstly, if you mean "facials," say "facials," this isn't like how in some places they call sodas "cokes" or "pops."  Secondly, "money shots" incorporate some nine different major finishing moves (the facial, the swallow, the pearl necklace, the creampie, the anal creampie, the soul sucker, the inner ear, the Kintaro, and, on certain stages, the pit).  And thirdly, whom exactly are you fucking, Victorian housewives?  Because I thought you were fucking 20-something Americans living in the present day, where most women have come to terms with the fact that men ejaculate.

 With some reservations, anyway.

On one hand, I'm pleased as punch that Don Jon even broaches the subject.  Most (non-porno) movie sex scenes elide the details of how one busts his ghosts, and still treat oral sex followed by a facial or swallowing as if they're more extreme than vaginal intercourse ending with a creampie, which oddly seems to be quite fine to imply—even in a PG-13 movie.  In real life I assure you that, for most people, the respective level of intimacy is entirely reversed, and in many cases the latter is wholly verboten.  And for good reason; how many people do you know whose lives were destroyed by swallowing some cum?

Okay.  Name another.

So why then is Don Jon at the same time so conservative—and inaccurate?

It treats mainstream pornography as if it isn't exactly that, and almost as if it's Jon's secret, or at least the exclusive province of man's world.  Don Jon thinks that no woman has ever watched porn, let alone enjoyed it, and can't even imagine a world where she might have internalized (so to speak) the pornographic aesthetic.  (It also seems to believe that people did not realize semen could be deposited elsewhere than upon the cervix before the invention of videotape.)  This movie is therefore completely convinced that nobody in all history has successfully emulated that aesthetic in their personal lives.  In tone, Don Jon occasionally veers close to Reefer Madness with porno filling in for pot; if it doesn't quite treat it as a categorical evil, it never suggests it can be anything but an impediment.

As a result, Don Jon has nothing really very useful to say about how porn has changed our society, and is too panicked and ill-informed to profitably explore how we've perhaps grown too dependent on its predictable fantasy in lieu of the rawer, more dangerous, and sometimes-disappointing reality of two-or-more sex.

And that's why I'm convinced that while porn might not always be based on a true story, Third Rock could have been, because it's far more plausible that an alien being from seventeen light years out wrote this movie, basing their depiction of society exclusively on the latest American television broadcasts from 1995.  But, hey, in JGL's defense, the dirty magazine episode of That 70s Show, that for all generations to come solved girls' questions about boys and their porn, had yet to be aired.

Real sexual issues associated with an overreliance on pornography are largely absent.  Jon may prefer masturbation, but has no trouble coming during vaginal intercourse, with a condom, with poorly-skilled or unmotivated partners, when they're both drunk.  There are no scenes of JGL jerking off in front of an increasingly bored and frustrated and feelings-hurt woman for twenty minutes, trying to scare up the one image that can set him off, because through lack of foresight he came four times earlier that day, or because he's not that into the sex that he's having, or just because he's trained himself to sexually respond to the different sensory stimulation of his hand and flashier visual material—there's a paper about that, look it up.

Perhaps one of the more deleterious aspects to porn is that it teaches us to demand sexual novelty even more than we're already biologically wired to do.  On one hand, porn can be a great safety valve for someone seeking something new, but ultimately a desire for constant novelty is something no single partner can steadily satisfy.  This is an issue that effects millions of couples, but how it's supposed to negatively impact Jon is unknown; he sleeps with a different woman every week.

Indeed, I might be wrong, but there's a line that suggests he could be annoyed just because his sex doesn't look like porn, which is a thought we've all had (especially after "The One With the Videotape"), but few people outside of amateur enthusiasts and actual porn filmmakers dwell upon, and then only because that's their art.  Everyone knows sex that looks really cool and sex that feels really good are not wholly overlapping sets by any means.  Everyone save Don Jon, perhaps.

An actual harmful compulsion worthy of an addiction does finally crop up, I'll concede—and it provides the trigger for one of the movie's best jokes, as well as serving as one of the only signals that Jon has a problem other than being a good pick-up artist but a lousy and delusional lay, unwilling to develop his partners' abilities and the lines of communication between them.

None of the identified physical deficiencies in his lovemaking are definitively corrected by the end of the movie.  Instead, love itself—or emotional connection, I suppose—conquers all.  It's possible, maybe even probable, that the woman he does end up with has actually just gotten better at fucking (she'll do cowgirl—the kinky little minx!), but that's probably not the conclusion we're expected to draw.

The fact is, and all of us who have had sex know it, you can have bad sex with someone you love, and great sex with someone you don't even particularly like.  Emotion is not the only factor.  There is no one factor.  There are no sufficients here.  Don Jon is almost as simplistic in its conclusions as the more conventional romantic comedies its protagonist despises, and which JGL seems to agree are just as intellectually and emotionally invalid as his movie presents pornography.

Don Jon is willing to offend and discomfit, and for a movie marketed to a wide audience, that's credited, but in the end the only really shocking part of this movie is how it moves with such alacrity from a sort of fuck-you confrontationalism with (its idea of) our ideas about sex directly to rank sentimentality.  It doesn't go all the way; there are suggestions that, although it'll be fun while it lasts and has a meaning to it that he's never felt before, the relationship Jon finds in the end won't go the distance.  The movie's not that deluded, and points where points are due.  Yet the idea that sex is all about how you feel about the other person is not just dumb, it's the same awful lie you can hear in movies with far fewer pretensions.

Porn teaches a lot of valuable lessons, but there's one that you'd think Don Jon would have taken to heart above all: frankness is not the same thing as honesty.

Score: 5/10

P.S. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt telling the people that they don't need porn is like Mitt Romney telling them they don't need food stamps: it's a little disingenuous.

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