Rated R. -. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.
Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 0; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 8.
Our star rating (1-5): 3
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
Joseph Gordon Levitt is the star, as well as the writer/director of this tale about Jon Martello, a sexually addicted young New Jersey bartender who tells us he loves his friends, his family, his car, his girls (meaning his nightly bar pickups), his church, his gym workouts, and, perhaps most of all, his porn. Yes, this is a film that deserves its R rating and which, though offering a great opportunity for young adults to talk about sex and its cluster of values, would be a difficult film to choose to explore with a church group—even though Levitt has said that as a filmmaker he wanted to explore society’s tendency to objectify women through sex.
Jon and his buddies enjoy hanging out at popular nightspots where they rate the women they see on a scale of 1 to 10. His friends call him Don Jon after the legendary love maker because his good looks and charm enable him to pick up virtually any nubile young woman to bed down in his apartment. However, after each tryst he sneaks out of bed to his laptop to engage in pleasuring himself while watching an on-line porno movie. He says that real girls just do not give him the full satisfaction, as do those in a pornographic movie. On Sunday, Jon attends his Catholic church where, after a boring sermon, he confesses his sins of the flesh. Then comes the night when he and his buddies spot Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) alone at the bar.
Rating her a 10+ and exclaiming she is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen, Jon goes after her. At first she is cool to his charms, but his persistence pays off in a series of dates. However, these do not end with the two in bed, she proving to be elusive—and also demanding. She drags him to the movies to watch syrupy romantic films, every bit as unrealistic as his porn. Both of them obtain their ideas of the other sex from fantasy worlds—porno and romance movies. He even brings her to his parents’ home for dinner. His mother Angela (Glenne Headley), hoping for a grandchild, is convinced that “she’s the one,” and his lustful father (Tony Danza) is highly impressed that his son can attract such a knockout of a woman.
At last Jon succeeds in getting Barbara into bed, but she proves no more fulfilling than his earlier conquests, so Jon sneaks off again to engage in his Internet porn. One night Barbara wakes up and catches him at it. She commands him to give it up, but this is one command that he cannot keep, so they soon part. At night school Jon meets a very different kind of woman. Esther (Julianne Moore) is older and has the wisdom of heartbreak experience that gradually helps Jon arrive at a more realistic view of sex and of women. People of faith will cheer this development, but disagree with the filmmaker who seems to believe that Jon has arrived at maturity. The film’s conclusion is anything but satisfying.
Nor is the film’s depiction of the Catholic rite of Penance satisfying. It resembles too much the old Protestant caricature that Catholics go to Confession and then are free to do anything they want. The voice of the priest in the series of Confession scenes sounds like a recording, endlessly telling Jon the number of Our Fathers and Hail Maries he should say for absolution. Jon dutifully rattles these off while going through his exercise regimen at the gym—both mechanistically with no heart or thought in mind. This priest must have heard Jon hundreds of times, given that Jon confesses every Sunday. Any real priest would have made some comment about his insincerity—I can imagine the late Fr. Andrew Greeley telling him, “Cut the crap, Jon! Get your ass out of here, and don’t come back until you are sincere about repenting your sins!”
This flawed tale of a porn-obsessed young man is definitely not for everyone, but those wanting to think about or discuss how our society views and uses sex will find plenty to talk about, beginning with the montage of TV commercials shown at the opening of the film. The scenes of Jon’s patriarchal family also could be analyzed, especially his father’s reminiscing back to the day when he first saw Jon’s mother. Also there is the delightful sister Monica (Brie Larson) who in all the family scenes sits in sullen silence while Jon and Jon Sr. rant and rave at each other. But when she does at last speak up, her words have a powerful impact on Jon.
As I watched the film an old song made famous by the Mills Brothers kept coming to mind, Paper Doll. Though written way back in 1915, it is about a guy very much like Jon, one who cannot enter into a two way relationship with a woman because he wants to control her, so he buys a paper Doll that he can call “my own.” He imagines that when he comes home at night “she will be waiting”—presumably to do whatever he wants, not what she wants. As the song progresses we learn that the singer has been hurt by “a real live doll,” so he has retreated to a Paper Doll who is true, unlike “a fickle-minded real live girl.” Wow, the song is almost a hundred years old, but in Jon we see not much has changed, except that porn has replaced the Paper Doll (or to update the metaphor, an inflatable one). Jon, even the more mature version at the end of the film, is a long way in understanding Jesus’ vision of sexual intimacy between a man and a woman resulting in the two becoming “one flesh.” (See Matthew 19:3-6)
The full review with a set of 9 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the November issue of Visual Parables, which will be available olate in October.