Written and directed by its star, Don Jon is a movie by Joseph Gordon-Levitt about a New Jersey lothario who can get laid with a snap of his fingers -- hence his buddies' nickname for him, "Don Jon" -- but much prefers fingering his penis while staring at online porno. In a word, he's an addict. We realize early-on how addicted he is when, after good sex with the real live, good-looking Barbara, he slips out of bed, goes to the puter, and masturbates. When he finally meets a woman he believes he can get serious with (who wouldn't, it's Scarlett Johansson), he sours the relationship when she catches him spanking the monkey. Finally, he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman who explains his addiction and suggests he can quit if he really tries. Alas, he tries and fails. (Although Esther herself has a psychological addiction to weed, the film never really explores the irony.) The film ends in true Hollywood fashion, with Don Jon giving up porno and establishing a seemingly permanent relationship with Esther.
Unfortunately, it's a mediocre movie. Gordon-Levitt practically drives the XXX addiction into the ground, repeatedly showing Jon pulling his pud and going to confessional at the local cathedral to ask forgiveness for his Onanic sins. These latter scenes follow almost every sequence depicting both his sexual conquests and masturbatory exercises. (Jon also exercises in a gym, and he has a ripped ab body to show for it.) Most of the confessions involve having "sex out of wedlock," but all feature self-pleasuring, and each time the priest tells Jon to go and sin no more, advising so many "Lord's Prayers" and so many "Hail, Mary's" as penance. In a penultimate confession scene, after breaking off with Barbara and engaging in marathon masturbation, the unseen priest requires of Jon twenty Prayers and twenty Hails. And in the final confession, after Jon explains that he's finally quit beating his meat, he expresses chagrin when the anonymous voice advises ten each penances. Jon is understandably confused; why, he asks, so large a number when the only thing he has done is have sex out of wedlock with Esther? All attempts to reason with the unseen intermediary draw silence. When the little trap door dividing the parties closes shut, it is always with a loud thud, as if the priest is saying, "You got what you came for, get your ass out of here."
I was left to wonder: does Gordon-Levitt realize the message he's sending his audience, and, if so, does that make him a freethinker, agnostic, or atheist? No one reading this is likely to think Jon has done anything he should be ashamed of. If Jon needs anyone it is not a priest but a psychologist, someone who can explain compulsive behavior to him, explain that he is at most neurotic, not awful. The confessional scenes are thought provoking to say the least. I belong to that school of film aesthetics that holds that a movie only succeeds insofar as it makes you laugh, makes you cry, or makes you think. I only laughed once or twice in the film, and it is not designed to make you cry, but the Catholic parts made me think, at least of what I already knew or suspected. Why, for example, would the Roman church take umbrage at masturbation? We know that the "sin of Onan" was not masturbation but coitus interruptus. Why would the ancient desert warlords who wrote the O.T. put into the mouth of God a proscription for not completing sexual intercourse? Why, for the very same reason the RCC condemns jacking off: it doesn't produce little baby future Catholics.
But there's another point the movie makes, either without knowing it or so subtly few religionists will catch it. It is that confession are pure horse manure. Elsewhere in these pages I have compared Scientology's process of "clearing" to the RCC confessional (use of the "e-meter" is the functional equivalent, the new recruits to the cult paying shekels to rid them of neuroses an obvious cognate to placing them in a collection plate). Both "religions" (L. Ron Hubbard is God to Scientologists) in order to free their minds of the detritus of hang-ups, things for which they feel shame, whether it is John Travolta's deeply closeted homosexuality or Greta van Susteren's bovine facial features. Both of these sleights of hand are designed to hold the believer in thrall and keep them coming around, if only to "get it off your chest" or, probably, in the case of Scientology, risk exposure of what you've already confessed to or been sussed out on. When Don Jon goes regularly to the confessional booth, the anonymous person on the other side of the partition may not be recording what is admitted, but he's nevertheless taken advantage of the twin kleshas of guilt and fear. If I don't tell all and receive forgiveness, I could wind up in Hell.
James, thanks for the review. I hope there will be more Atheist Movie Reviews!
Maybe.... Noah? :-)
I used to do it "professionally." In quotes because I only got paid in copies writing for "Film Quarterly" and in preview tickets for "Open City" (an "underground" newspaper that published Charles Bukowski's "Notes of Dirty Old Man" as a column).
I watched this movie, James. Although not a great movie, it made me laugh. I took it as a step forward for atheism in that it was saying all things religious should not be taken that seriously.