Friday, January 3, 2014

Juan Is the Loneliest Number

We now are a sufficient number of days into 2014 for all our New Year’s Resolutions to have been broken, so we all can relax a bit. New Year’s Eve itself I spent as I usually do – cozy on the couch. I give and attend my share of parties and get-togethers during the course of a year, but in the first moments of one I prefer to be warm and solitary while watching the frozen-toed horde in Times Square on TV. An added bonus: an available bathroom if I need one is down the hall. I always suspect the shrieks from the crowd at midnight have more to do with relief at the event being over than with any enthusiasm for the new year.

Simply counting down the minutes is a little dull, though, so for the two hours prior to midnight on the 31st, I watched Don Jon, a film well-regarded by critics, on pay-per-view. I had missed it when it was in the theaters several months ago. It is the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt who also wrote the screenplay. (Mild spoilers follow.)

At first blush, the film didn’t look promising. Don Jon is set in NJ and is populated by characters that the cast of Jersey Shore would regard as classless. Yet, underneath his crassness, Jon (Gordon-Levitt) has enough heart for us soon to start to care what happens to him – barely enough, but enough. On the surface, the film is about one man’s porn addiction, but the target is really bigger: it is about modern narcissism of which Jon’s pastime is a symptom. Jon prefers internet porn to real women. He likes real women, to be sure, and is an expert seducer of them: hence the nickname “Don Jon” given to him by his friends. He and his pals enjoy cruising sleazy pick-up clubs, and Jon rarely leaves without an 8, 9 or “dime” on his 1-to-10 scale. Nevertheless, the women don’t ever measure up in his mind to his private sessions in front of his computer screen; in fact, he commonly retreats to his computer after his date for the evening falls asleep. The reason is that porn sex is all about him. He need bring nothing to the relationship. There is no relationship; his indulgence is entirely one-sided.

Jon meets a dime named Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). Jon’s father (Tony Danza) leers his approval when he brings her home to meet the family, and compliments Jon (aside, at least) on the “piece of ass.” His sister Monica (Brie Larson) just rolls her eyes while remaining silently glued to her smart phone. Though Jon falls hard for Barbara, even she doesn’t equal his porn sessions, so he continues with them. Early on, Barbara catches Jon looking at porn and makes him promise to give it up; Jon doesn’t give it up, but is careful to keep his habit out of her sight.

Barbara, we soon learn, is addicted to her own preferred film fantasies: romantic comedies. After watching one, she gushes about how romantic it is: “He gave up everything for her,” she says. This response to the movie is telling, for it expresses exactly what she wants for herself. In truth, the only thing Barbara brings to her relationship with Jon is sex; otherwise she is entirely one-sided. Everything is about her, and she is highly demanding of Jon in ways large and small. Apparently, this is why she feels so threatened by porn: she senses it is a real rival to her only asset. Barbara is appalled when she snoops on Jon’s browser history; she discovers he still visits porn sites, so she breaks up with him. When Jon reveals the break-up to his family, Monica unexpectedly looks up from her phone and with perfect accuracy tells Jon (Brie Larson’s only lines in the whole movie, despite substantial screen time) that he is better off because Barbara just wanted someone to boss around.

Largely by luck, Jon finally does get a taste of what a real two-way affair is like, thanks to an older, wiser, and open-minded woman named Esther, played by Julianne Moore. Neither intends a permanent relationship, but the experience gives him some personal insight about his own shortcomings and motivations.

Not just Jon and Barbara, but nearly all the characters in the movie (omitting Esther) are focused almost exclusively on their own wants. It’s not a rare focus among people in the real world either. Just this morning I failed to meet the expectations of a jogger. It was bitter cold last night and a substantial snow fell. So, early this morning I drove out in my 4WD through empty snow-covered streets in order to shovel the sidewalk in front of my office. Fewer than 40% of the surrounding sidewalks had yet seen a shovel, but, while scooping away, I nonetheless got a nasty look and an annoyed “Tch!” from a passing jogger for not having finished clearing the path for her yet; the neighbor (though not around to hear them) got curses from her for not yet having touched his walks at all. We should have been more aware of the jogging schedule.

Is this really a particularly narcissistic era? Probably not. Folks 50 or 100 years ago probably were much the same fundamentally, but there does seem to be less reticence in 2014 about expressing our self-involvement than was once socially commonplace. Perhaps this is for the best. We enter relationships better forewarned – if we enter them at all. In 2011 the game maker Konami released Love Plus+ which allows the player, Pygmalion style, to create his or her own simulated paramours – a rather more creative alternative than that favored by Jon. As a promotion, Konami hosted a romantic holiday weekend at the resort town Atami for players and their virtual lovers. It was a smashing success. Would such a promotion be just as successful in Atlantic City? I have little doubt.


  1. I was curious about this movie. Gordon-Levitt seems to be really good in anything he's in. And the whole set up sounded very entertaining.

    I'm sure you're sick of the NJ stereotyping as much as I'm sick of the Southern Califorinia stereotyping. If I see one more character from "L.A." order a health plate at a restaurant, or yammer on about how much they go to the beach... well I guess I eat a tofu stir fry and head off to Malibu. ;)

  2. Almost any joke about LA since “Annie Hall” is derivative. As for NJ, I’m about as Jersey born and bred as it is possible to be, and live in the same town as Governor Christie (my house is assessed quite a bit lower though), but I’ve yet to acquire the accent allotted to us by Gordon-Levitt in “Don Jon” or Katherine Heigl in “One for the Money.” (I suppose there is still time.) It does exist, but in no more than 15% of the population – in truth the stereotypical Valley Girl accent is probably more commonplace in the state. The same is true of the nonverbal accents, e.g. those in “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.”

    I don’t regret the rental fee for the movie. One minor fillip: I found the use of Brie Larson amusing precisely because she is capable of so much more than silence – her vocals in her version of Metric’s “Black Sheep” in “Scott Pilgrim vs the World” were better than the original, and I like Metric.