Don Jon (dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013)

by Christopher B. Barnett

Don Jon is, most likely, not the sort of movie you’d want to watch with your mother. Depicting the struggles of Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also the writer and director), an Italian-American lothario, who, despite his sexual conquests, is addicted to pornography, it is not a film that shies away from the uncomfortable. There are numerous scenes of Jon masturbating to porn, not to mention frank discussions of sex in general. Nevertheless, this edginess is actually in service to what might be seen as an old-fashioned moral. Jon’s trouble, it turns out, is not so much his addiction as his narcissism: he prefers porn to “real sex” because the latter requires him to relate to the other, to care about her emotional and physical needs, whereas the former satisfies his urges free of responsibility. Moreover, this lack of empathy is depicted as a cultural phenomenon. Jon’s girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) is more interested in his upward mobility than in him; his mother (Glenne Headly) doesn’t care what he does as long as he settles down and gives her grandchildren; his sister (Brie Larson) stares into her phone with nary a word; and his father (Tony Danza, a long way from Who’s the Boss?) watches football at the dinner table, pausing only to berate Jon about this or that point. Jon is surrounded by narcissists, and so, the film suggests, it’s not surprising that he engages in similar behavior.

What finally breaks this spell over Jon is his relationship with Esther (Julianne Moore), an older woman, who, it is revealed, has experienced her share of tragedy. In Esther, Jon finds a friend and, indeed, a lover who takes an interest in him. She’s not embarrassed to discuss his porn addiction because she is able to understand the underlying problem — that he is lonely, just as she is lonely. Thus their relationship, however improbable, becomes a means of salvation. In caring for someone else, Jon finally learns to care for himself.

It is a tidy ending — too tidy, in my opinion — but one that is common enough in Hollywood. Yet, from a theological perspective, what makes Don Jon particularly interesting is its portrayal of the Catholic Church. True to his Italian heritage, Jon regularly attends Mass with his family, and he frequents the sacrament of penance. But, for him, these activities function in a way not unlike porn: once he gets what he wants (in this case, priestly absolution), he is satisfied, so much so that he feels no need to really change. The sacrament appears to dispense forgiveness just as porn dispenses sexual pleasure — free of responsibility.

That Gordon-Levitt here misses the meaning of Catholic sacramental theology and practice has been noted, and rightly so. Still, that does not entirely dismiss the point. Jon’s (mis)understanding of the sacrament is not unheard of in Catholic circles, and, besides, one could argue that in a culture of narcissism we are bound to treat the sacraments narcissistically, thinking of them as resources for self-gratification, rather than as the objective presence of God. Thus Don Jon hits on a genuine problem. What is concerning, however, is the film’s failure to see that its proposed solution to Jon’s troubles (his newfound willingness to give selflessly to another) is not at odds with Catholic teaching but, rather, presupposes it. In other words, Jon’s love for Esther is not a radical departure from his upbringing. On the contrary, it is the first time in his life that he actually realizes much of what the Church teaches — that penance is not merely individualistic but also interpersonal; that sexual pleasure obtains significance only in the context of other-directed love; that human happiness requires more than the satisfaction of material desires.

Toward the end of the film, Jon complains that his confessor — whom the viewer, notably, never gets to see — has not recognized his growth as a human being. In response, the confessor merely says, “Have faith, my son,” and then shuts the screen separating him from Jon. This scene intends to underline the hollowness of Jon’s Catholicism: the Church, it is implied, only speaks in veiled platitudes. But might it be just the opposite? Might it be the case that Jon’s habit of confession, however flawed, has disposed him to seek the kind of love he finds in Esther? Isn’t it possible that the sacrament, which marks God’s continued presence on earth, has slowly but surely broken through Jon’s hard-heartedness and set him on the path of redemption? Has not Jon’s imperfect contrition (attritio) made possible a deeper engagement with the world and with others, so that, in the words of the Council of Trent, “[it] is a gift of God and a prompting of the Holy Spirit, by whose help the penitent prepares the way to righteousness”?

Such a conclusion would be plausible, though Don Jon does not acknowledge it. As it is, Jon’s “conversion” is purely immanent, arising from a kinder, gentler romantic love that has no reference point beyond the subjective needs of its participants. For all of its good intentions, then, Gordon-Levitt’s attempt to transcend the culture of narcissism never really gets off the ground.

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