The Art of Masturbation: Don Jon

On the surface, Don Jon is the finest straight drag show since Bosom Buddies.

It's Jersey Shore realness here. First-time director/writer/star Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson do their Nawth Jersey impersonations with such vigor and nuance that they make real characters out of people who in real life would be described as "real characters." He's the Situation with a pretty face: Slicked-back hair, pecs, chains, and over-sharing soul. She's the sweetest bitch you'll ever meet. They find each other, fall in love, and fall out. The great fun that Gordon-Levitt and Johansson are having (people loooove doing Jersey Italian impressions) is infectious—Don Jon is largely a joy to watch.

But what pushes the movie out of the realm of the feature-length SNL skit is that its anthropological interest in Jersey culture is mostly set dressing in service of something darker and more interesting: The porn addiction of Gordon-Levitt's Jon. The movie purports to real-talk in its put-on garble of an accent, and it's much rawer than you'd expect from a romantic comedy. "Yo, not gonna lie: this sound gets me as hard as a fuckin' rock," are the first words Don says to us, in reference to a Mac's trademark "on" tone. His voice-over explains his secret addiction to online pornography, which—as this is a topic rarely addressed in pop culture—is more shocking than his womanizing.

More shocking despite a cultural fostering of overstimulation that leads to a hunger for even more stimulation. Or so the film suggests. Gordon-Levitt peppers Don Jon with racy media imagery to signal the bombardment Don (and all of us, really) endure: the Deal or No Deal girls, Phoebe Cates exiting the pool in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, that ridiculous Carl's Jr. cod fish sandwich commercial, sex-obsessed women's magazines. Sex is everywhere, it's easy to get sucked in. Technology has the potential to revise sexuality to an unrecognizable extent: "Real pussy's good, but it's not as good as porn," Don tells us in a voice over.

On one hand, Don Jon makes a case for that evolution as a legitimate form of sexuality in Don's meticulous articulation of his practices and tastes ("I never actually touch my cock till I find the right clip"). On the, other, though, Don Jon is too conservative at heart to present and explore an addict or deviant whose life is hindered by his problem—Don is able to pick up and perform with women (gorgeous women) with no problems other than his own lack of satisfaction (we see him repeatedly leaving the woman he just fucked sleeping in bed so he can get off by himself).

The masturbation isn't really affecting his daily life in any physiological way, at least. It's enhancing it. When he admits that through porn and jerking off, he can "lose himself," the drug parallel is clear. But that parallel also surfaces in scenes featuring Don scoring ass in the club. We see this a few times, presented in a similar montage format: a shot of his eyes, a shot of her eyes, a shot of him buying her a drink, a shot of him grinding on her from behind, a shot of them making out on one of the club's couches, a shot of them leaving the club, a shot of them fucking in his bed. These scenes ingeniously telegraph the blur of the nightclub pickup, as well as the narcotic nature of seduction and sex (the repeated staccato cuts recall Requiem for a Dream's drug-taking scenes).

Don, see, is a multi-drug user of sorts, and the problem isn't so much that he's using drugs, but how he uses them. Despite his near-constant socializing (we don't find out till much later in the movie that he's a bartender, and we never see him at work), he's disconnected from his friends, his lovers, his family (Tony Danza, as Don's dad, deserves a shout for, as far as I can tell, showing up on set in his tank top and just going for it—he's terrific). For a long stretch, Don doesn't have to consider his behavior much—just quantify it in weekly confessions at his Catholic church, and then knock out his penance while working out at the gym (instead of counting, he says his Our Fathers and Hail Marys).

When he does finally have to confront his habit, it's after being shamed for it by Johansson's Barbara, who quickly reveals herself to be a conservative (she makes him wait a month before sex) killjoy with antiquated attitudes on gender roles (she similarly shames him in a Home Depot for doing his own floors). She's a nag, but she's onto something and (spoiler alert) it's only through better pussy that Don can start his path to healthy sexuality. Julianne Moore, as a woman in the same night-school class that Don attends, helps set him on the path to striking a balance between the pleasurable and communal aspects of sex (and porn, for that matter).

For all of its frank exploration of the messy way that sexuality and technology intertwine and tighten as we become more plugged-in, Don Jon wraps up way too tidily (probably, at least – Don is a great liar and there's an outside chance that his uplifting voice-over coda is nothing more than another serving of his bullshit). There's a scene in the middle of the film mocking rom-com conventions, and then another down the line that strikes a parallel between men's fantasy-chasing by way of porn and women's fantasy-chasing by way of romantic comedies.

The latter idea feels at least superficially satisfying until it becomes clear that Don Jon itself perpetuates that same fantasy, the idealized version of human interaction where everything is fixable, where love conquers all, and no therapist is necessary to overcome addiction. No matter how self-aware Don Jon is by employing the modern rom-com convention of poking fun at rom-com conventions, its resolution feels like a copout. It makes all that led up to it seem kind of masturbatory.