From the minute our minds begin processing images and stories, we're immersed in fantasy gender projections. These myriad memes of idealised sexual and social conduct permeating every level of the media we mentally feed on subconsciously shape the expectations we place upon our potential mates and ourselves.
If you thought Joseph Gordon-Levitt's passion project would be a simple, one-sided sex comedy about the damaging influence of porn addiction on real world dating, think again. Written and directed by its star, Don Jon takes a much more holistic look at the types of addictions that foster skewed perceptions of entitlement in our modern age.
An introductory montage of hyper-sexualized images from horror films, music videos, celebrity magazines, cartoons, billboards, commercials and bus ads is the first nod to the bigger picture Levitt's getting at. To work with extreme examples of the behaviour patterns he's analysing, the actor turned director sets his story of a guy who gets "wicked hard" at the sound of a computer start-up tone in that hotbed of mindless vanity: New Jersey.
Jon (Levitt), a womanizing meathead, loves his body, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls and his porn — not necessarily in that order. He does more than fine with the ladies, but prefers the ritualized, solitary satisfaction of Internet pornography; he can't lose himself in another person the way he can lose himself in passive fantasy. Clubbing with his buddies, hooking up, jerking off, going to church, working out, washing his car, keeping his dwelling spotless and having dinner with his family is a routine he's perfectly happy with, until he spies the ever-elusive "eleven" that is Barbara (Scarlett Johansson).
She's "the most beautiful thing" he's ever seen, the ultimate arm candy — literally his woman in the red dress. Surely with such a prize he'd have no cause to indulge in his favourite pastime. At least that's how Barbara sees it. Once their relationship progresses to the point where we observe the Titanic poster on Barbara's childhood bedroom wall and have a firm sense of her idea of what a good movie and, by extension, a proper, chivalrous man are, the scope of Levitt's larger argument begins to take distinct shape.
Almost every character exhibits an obsessive habit to reinforce the theme in some way or another: Jon's domineering father (Tony Danza) can't tear his eyes off the football game under any circumstances; his anxious mother (Glenne Headly) can't wait for Jon to procreate; and his laconic sister (Brie Larson) is glued to her cellphone, which becomes such an effective running joke that when she finally does speak it feels like a Silent Bob epiphany punch-line.
The intentionally repetitive structure of the film is thoughtfully edited to punctuate the habitual nature of everything in Jon's life (right down to saying his Hail Marys while pumping iron), carrying the needlessly impatient urgency of someone hunting for a golden moment of gratification.
Jon's buddies get the short end of the character complexity stick, but all of the primary players put in their best effort to make these characters feel like real people unconsciously trying to put on an expected persona, aside from unlikely beacon of authenticity Esther (Julianne Moore, who can convey nuanced pain like few others).
A candid, confessional, unashamed look at how people are trained to romanticize selfishness, Don Jon is more than just an impressive debut; it's an essential and hilarious reality check.