Is ‘Don Jon’ the First Truly Honest Movie About Porn?

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From Boogie Nights and Wonderland to About Cherry and Lovelace, there’s no shortage of films about pornography, and it’s not hard to guess why: in examining the (pardon the expression) ins and outs of the industry, either seriously or satirically, filmmakers can fulfill a voyeuristic and prurient interest in the business of sex without engaging in it directly. But in almost every instance, films about porn deal solely with its production rather than its consumption. It’s understandable — the former offers high drama, drugs, and naked people having sex, while the latter is, even under the best circumstances, kind of gross. But two new films make a frank attempt to shed some light on this dark corner of the porn experience, and come up with some insights on not only how we consume it, but how it affects us. (And by “us,” I mostly mean dudes.)

The films in question are Thanks for Sharing and Don Jon (both out now in limited release). Both ponder the sexualization of mass media from their opening frames: Thanks by dramatizing how a mere walk down a city street can become a sensory assault of sexual images, Don Jon by intercutting those images with its opening credits. Thanks’ three leads are sex addicts, the youngest (ably played by Josh Gad) still wallowing in the worst of it. He touches inappropriately on subways, he’s fired from his job for trying to shoot an “upskirt” video of his boss, and he’s hopelessly addicted to porn, prone to marathon sessions of alternating between masturbating at his computer and stuffing his face with food. There are flashes of insight in Thanks for Sharing, but they’re mostly smothered by its numerous garden-variety “addiction movie” tropes, and it ends up playing more like a buddy-movie variation on Shame than a thoughtful examination of the subject.

Don Jon’s protagonist (played by writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt) isn’t explicitly branded a sex addict (he even changed the film’s title from Don Jon’s Addiction after its Sundance debut). But his pathological consumption of porn sure sounds like an addiction; at his lowest point, he masturbates to pornography 11 times in one day (“Up until now, my record was ten”), and challenged with the notion that he’s hooked, he insists, “It’s not that I can’t stop, I just figure, why should I?”

That’s classic addict double-talk, as is his detailed description of his intricate porn-and-spank ritual. He has a whole process, you see: he starts slow, checking out stills, maybe a little softcore, then moves to the hardcore video, searching for that one, “right clip” he can settle in for. There’s an uncomfortable ring of truth in that sequence, for certain viewers, and I’m not excluding myself from that category. Look, as Jon says himself late in the film, “Every guy. Watches porn. Every day.” Among at least young men, this seems to be true — from the very limited research I’ve done on the matter, because we don’t talk about it. And when it’s seen in films, they’re usually of the American Pie variety, played as an embarrassing punchline rather than, let’s face it, an essential truth of the young male experience.

What’s fascinating, and ultimately most valuable, about Don Jon is the tricky balance Gordon-Levitt achieves between acknowledging that fact and examining its effect on the male psyche, without turning into a scold. There is no question that Jon’s mainlining of porn, and his friends’ (presumably) similar habits, change how they view the opposite sex, and not just in the rating-girls-in-the-club, boys-will-be-boys locker room talk that much of their dialogue is rooted in. On several occasions, he refers to his new girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Not the most beautiful girl or woman or even person thing. Some of this is inherited; his father (Tony Danza) recalls first laying eyes on his future wife and announcing, “That’s mine.” But it’s clear that much of this comes from a daily (sometimes multiple times a day) frolic through a world of objectification.

More damaging, though, is the way porn has warped his view of the sex act itself. “Real pussy’s good,” he’ll grant, with a shrug. “But I’m sorry, it’s not as good as porn.” And with that, he launches into a point-by-point account of how the real thing dissatisfies, stacking up the fantasy against the reality. And, of course, reality comes up short; the sexual acrobatics and climactic money shots that he’s hooked on are as far removed from authenticity as the dopey romantic comedies his girl adores.

This is fertile territory — both that gulf and the way it has altered expectations of the sexual experience for those who have grown up with such images a mere mouse click away. Girls has delved into similar territory, particularly in examining (both with humor and with some concern) the sexual peccadilloes of the Adam character, and wondering how to reconcile these fictions with fact. When Jon is caught by an older woman (Julianne Moore) watching porn on his phone, she laughs at his interest in “watching people pretend to fuck.”

“Lady,” he objects, “the shit I watch on here, they’re not pretending.”

She grins, knowingly. “Of course they are.” Don Jon doesn’t let its protagonist off the hook, but it also doesn’t trap him in a life sentence. Explaining the appeal of porn, he tells her, “I lose myself. Just, g’bye.” There’s a time in one’s life when it’s easy to make that escape — and a time to cut it out. And if there’s hope for Jon, there’s hope for anyone.