One of Don Jon‘s (2013) early pornographic montages ends with a tame—yet significant—money shot. A lip-glossed blonde bends over in a thong and bra, then looks directly into the camera and asks, “You want a meaningful relationship?” The question is not so much about what kind of relationship the viewer wants as what kind of relationship they’re not going to get by watching porn. Because while Don Jon superficially engages with issues related to sexuality in the age of unlimited bandwidth, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut is a romantic comedy that badly wants to subvert the rom-com genre by delegitimizing mediated fantasy and desire. Whether its characters are jerking it to Pornhub or kneeling at the Ephron altar, Don Jon rejects all screen-based sexual ideals as illusions without value. But in attempting to separate cinematic delusion from real-life substance, the film crafts another problematic fantasy: it fetishizes the notion of meaning itself.
Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a god-fearing New Jersey bartender with toned pecs, a medium-deep tan, and a NSFW internet browser history. With regards to his copious online habit, the film leaves little room for self-love: by the closing credits, Jon realizes “real pussy” beats virtual, and “quits” porn. On the other side of the binary is Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), the pushy “perfect 10” Jon meets at a nightclub, who interprets romantic comedies as holy writ. A manicured princess with rigid views of what a “real man” should do, she is ultimately derided as the film’s villain, unable to let go of her happily-ever-after criteria.
Although Don Jon dismisses porn as pure flesh and romantic comedies as pure fantasy, the film offers a third romantic category—one that is supposedly pure in and of itself: the meaningful relationship. “It’s a two-way thing,” Jon says about sex with Esther (Julianne Moore), a pot-smoking widow he meets in a night class. Jon’s connection with Esther is presented as an alternative to the tenets of both porn and romantic comedies. It’s sexual, but not without feeling; it’s important, but they’re not picking out rings. However, while Don Jon may ask worthwhile questions about the expectations elicited by both porn and rom-coms, the film undermines its critique of mediated sexuality—that is, desire filtered through the imagery and mythologies of popular media—by representing the idea of the “meaningful relationship” as another reductive mediated ideal. Jon’s interaction with Esther doesn’t look like anything he’s seen online or at the movies—but it is still a limiting construct.
Like most of Don Jon‘s themes, the concept of meaning is not painted with subtle strokes. It first comes up in the aforementioned porn clip, which inspires Jon to close his laptop and track Barbara down IRL. Later, while the couple are dry-humping against the door to her apartment, Barbara refuses to let Jon inside, claiming, “I don’t want to do anything unless it means something. Don’t you think it’s always better when it means something?” By naming it so bluntly, Don Jon turns meaning into a category—like a link you’d find on a porn site right after “Mature” and right before “MILFs.” The meaningful relationship is not a visceral or spontaneous occurrence, but rather a packaged trope. Barbara says she wants their relationship to “mean something,” but it is unclear—and possibly irrelevant—what the “something” actually refers to. The statement is circular: “something that means something” is, incoherently, the “something.” Even if the something might not signify anything.
And while it’s Esther, not Barbara, with whom Jon eventually finds his “something that means something,” Don Jon glorifies their supposed non-rom-com romance by portraying it in the same aesthetic code as big-box-office romantic comedies. This is presented most evidently through visual parallels between the film’s final montage, during which Jon professes his feelings for Esther, and the canned tear-jerker he watches with Barbara on their first date. This faux-rom-com, Special Someone, is a film-within-a-film starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway as two fictional actors named Conner Verreaux and Emily Lombardo. As Barbara laps up their tale of love, Jon airs his disdain in a voiceover: “The pretty woman. The pretty man. Love at first sight. The first kiss. The breakup. The make-up. The expensive wedding. And they drive off into the sunset. Everyone knows it’s fake but they watch it like it’s real fucking life.” The scene ends with a series of rapid shots alternating between Barbara’s ecstatic face and key moments from the onscreen romance—she is lost in Verreaux and Lombardo’s story.
Special Someone encapsulates Don Jon‘s critique of formulaic romantic comedies, so it is significant that its imagery is once again evoked during the film’s final montage, when Jon launches into another voiceover to describe his romance with Esther. “This fucking lady,” he starts, elaborating on his emotions over shots of him and Esther eating quiche and hanging out in a park, a guitar gently strumming in the background. While his words describe a relationship rooted in the practical circumstances of “real fucking life”—”I don’t mean ‘love’ like, ‘oh I love her, want to marry her’; I’m definitely not thinking about that”—the sequence’s visual cues recall the idealized romance in Special Someone. During Don Jon‘s final moments, Jon and Esther “make love” while the sun sets through the window behind them. The scene culminates in a series of rapid shots that flash back and forth between close-ups of their faces, indicative of how they are “lost together.” Ostensibly, their connection is the antithesis of Special Someone‘s contrived passion. But Don Jon undercuts Jon and Esther’s “two-way thing” by framing it in the same formal structure as Verreaux and Lombardo’s totally phony thing. Jon literally rides Esther into the sunset.
Don Jon also fetishizes meaning by representing Jon’s transformation from chronic masturbator to gentle love-maker within the terms of another rom-com conceit: the makeover movie. Initially, Jon’s methods of self-fulfillment are presented as a series of empty rituals. He lifts weights, cleans his apartment, screams at other drivers from his car, and fesses up his weekly jerk-off tally to his priest. There’s also his Saturday-night visits to the club, where he targets a woman, grinds her on the dance floor, gropes her on the lounge seating, then takes her home for laboured sexual intercourse. But of all his rituals, porn is the most sacred. Jon describes his daily masturbation rites—booting up his computer, scanning still images, hunting down a clip, throwing a used Kleenex in the garbage—with such reverence, it’s like he’s entering into communion with his genitals.
Though Jon cherishes his porn, Don Jon is unequivocally anti-porn. Jon gets intimate with his MacBook several times throughout the film, and in each case his viewing begins with the same image: a play button. A portal to instant—and “meaningless”—fulfillment, the button is a heavy-handed symbol for gratification without gravity, so it’s noteworthy that Jon’s turnaround with Esther occurs in a similarly instantaneous manner. One night, after skipping class to have sex, Esther schools Jon in the ways of “two-way” lovemaking. “If you want to lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person,” she informs him. And with that one lesson, Esther pushes play on a different version of Jon. He stops gelling his hair, trades bicep curls for basketball, listens to the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch song “Good Vibrations” over his car stereo, tells off his priest and—crucially—quits porn.
His transformation can be read as another instance of the archetypal makeover plotline from films like Grease and She’s All That. Although Jon’s makeover paradoxically involves ditching the vainer elements of his routine, his final self-actualization, as in other rom-coms that follow this trajectory, only comes once he sacrifices himself. Don Jon may portray some of the problematic attitudes that arise in a culture weaned on smutty Google searches, but Jon’s porn habit is ultimately analogous to the glasses the geeky girl tosses off before kissing the reformed jock—it’s an accessory with no lasting impact on how he sees the world. Clicking play on a porn clip may be a shallow means-to-a-gratifying end, but so is changing his appearance and preferences to fit the pre-cast mold of the meaningful man. In light of his final metamorphosis, “losing himself” in another person signifies more than good sex. It’s also about relinquishing his defining traits to achieve a scripted version of happily ever after.
Esther’s persona is further reflective of Don Jon‘s shrink-wrapped conception of meaningfulness. Presented as a counterpoint to Barbara’s hard-to-please attitude, Esther’s chilled-out vibe signals a different but equally reductive feminine ideal: the redemptive “real” woman. If Barbara’s perfect blond hair symbolized her high maintenance, Esther’s style denotes her realness. Makeupless and middle-aged, Moore spends the film in earth-tone outfits with woven-rope purses hanging off her shoulder—all of which scream “I’m not-plastic.” A watershed moment in Esther and Jon’s interaction occurs when she tells him that porn sex is fake—but her own “realness” is also a staged performance. She may not be as abrasive or recognizable a cliché as Barbara, but the film envisions both women as self-contained categories rather than unique people. Esther occupies the opposite side of the manic pixie dream girl coin: while the classic MPDG is a childish nymph who teaches young men about life’s mysteries, Esther is a rather hardened—if slightly stoned—maternal figure who schools Jon in life’s realities. Jon’s relationship with Esther does not symbolize the triumph of a real woman over an artificial woman. Instead, it represents the triumph of a synthetic notion of realness that denies the film’s female characters—whether they have French nails, carry canvas totes, or give blowjobs on camera—the chance to be represented as anything other than stereotypes.
Don Jon may not successfully skewer the rom-com genre, but the film itself serves a useful example of how new mainstream romantic comedies are conceptualizing and mythologizing contemporary heterosexual relationships. Gordon-Levitt’s critique of mediated sexual fantasies is firmly gendered. Women approach dating as though they were Meg Ryan in a rom-com, the movie says, while men see sex through an amateur pornographer’s lens. As a middle ground, the film posits the meaningful relationship, an unfiltered “two-way thing.” However, Don Jon fetishizes the meaningful relationship by portraying it as another textbook end-goal: life-altering and passionate, it’s just a different version of the into-the-sunset payoff. Which is why Don Jon‘s critique of porn and rom-coms, while hinting at some of the damaging standards derived from contemporary media’s representation of sex and love, ultimately doesn’t square. The film cautions against onscreen portrayals of physical and emotional relationships, suggesting that these images create expectations that could never be met in the offscreen world—but then offers another cinematic ideal as an antidote. It would have done well to heed its own warning.