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Joseph Gordon-Levitt Dons the Jerk Gear for DON JON

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by Seth Abramson
October 17, 2013 9:26 AM
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Don Jon promo

Recently, Buzzfeed published a widely read listicle entitled, "40 Things Every Self-Respecting Man Over 30 Should Own". Reaction online was mixed. Some men and women considered the list—which included head-scratchers like duct tape, a wine key, a chef's knife, a flask, playing cards, sunglasses, heavy liquor, a bar set, and a French press—a reasonable tally of objects prerequisite to being a man. Others, largely men, considered the list patronizing at best and destructive at worst. One commenter wrote, "I had twenty out of forty [of these items], and was more proud of the twenty I didn't have than the twenty I did." The Buzzfeed list was light on objects indicating any interest in civil society: computers, newspapers, and magazines were deemed inessential. It also lacked objects encouraging men to be interested in their own emotional development. Tools for self-reflection were mysteriously absent, unless you count "a book collection" which, the list's author noted, didn’t need to have been read, or a record player which, as the list's author noted, was primarily useful for playing records that make their owner look good. One suspects that a thirty-something male who owns all or nearly all of the items on the Buzzfeed list is more likely smug than admirable—or adult. Enter Jon Martello, the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the porn-addiction dramedy Don Jon. Martello is just the sort of man for whom the Buzzfeed list functions as an essential guidebook, and if Don Jon is successful in its satire of contemporary living, it is primarily in reminding us—as if any reminder were needed—just how invasive and insidious gender typecasting is in America.

Martello is called "Don Jon" by his friends because he has a long, unbroken streak of post-clubbing sexual conquests. As with everything in Martello's life, sex is a mathematical function; a night out ends with intercourse just as surely as Mondays are abs, Tuesdays are back, Wednesdays are legs, Thursdays are chest, and Fridays are shoulders. Don Jon is the sort of borderline sociopath who, with pathological self-consciousness, aims at and hits all the markers on the Buzzfeed shopping list: a decent car (#38), black dress shoes (#2), cologne (#7), proper bedding (#9), a grooming kit (#14), an ironing board (#22), multiple sheet sets (#35), and so on.

Needless to say, a number of these items could indeed be considered useful to both men and women of any age past twenty-one. The problem is with counting them obsessively, as Buzzfeed and Martello do, as though the only way to get through life is to regularly award oneself gold stars for meeting the presumed requirements of adulthood. Despite these daily self-assessments, Martello is forced to endure his boorish father's persistent insistence that he's not yet a man. This likely explains the fact that the first half of Don Jon is one of the most depressing movie-going experiences you'll ever encounter. Never has a young man's life seemed so grasping yet emptily routine. Martello surrounds himself with the trappings of adulthood, but receives none of its satisfactions in return. Would picking up a newspaper help? Writing in a journal? Reading a favorite literary classic? Who knows.

Certainly, Martello doesn't own any such items, and even if he did it's not clear that he'd know what to do with them. In fact, he has so little imagination that he can't masturbate without a visual aid; so little patience behind the wheel of a car that he's a road-rage homicide waiting to happen; so little self-knowledge that he reacts with instinctive anger when his closest friend engages him in conversation of a personal nature; so little soul he can't look women in the eye when he speaks to them; so little emotional support that he never speaks to his parents without arguing with them (and never speaks to his largely mute sister at all); and so little self-possession that he falls madly in love with a woman (Scarlett Johansson) simply because she's a "dime" (a "ten") physically.

On the bright side, he does seem to own a French press (#31).

Don Jon club

Of course, being an adult isn't a matter of either/or; it's possible to both own a French press and also have a rich inner life. The problem, as Don Jon sees it, is that men and women alike have so routinized their lives and their identities that these days, lists like the one on Buzzfeed really do, for many, resemble exhaustive how-to manuals for adulthood. Perhaps this is why the first half of Don Jon seems at once harrowingly true-to-life but also dizzyingly pornographic in its broad brushstrokes and general moral shabbiness. Viewers have no idea why Martello and his two friends (he appears to have no others) continue to spend time together, as they do nothing but club and criticize one another; Jon even gets visibly upset when one of the two deigns to knock on his apartment door unannounced. Viewers likewise have no sense of Jon's professional life, as his unsatisfying bartending job is only alluded to twice and seen on-screen (in a two-second jump-cut) just once. Jon's family and church life are little more than a pastiche of uncomfortable Italian and Catholic stereotypes. His relationship with the seductive, romantic comedy-loving Barbara Sugarman (Johansson) is miles wide and inches deep, so much so that it's difficult to say whether either of the two says an honest word to the other during the film's ninety-minute run-time.

This, then, is what romantic comedies and pornography alike promise their consumers: a world in which expectations are obvious and always met, deviations from the norm are both predictable and harmless, and bean-counting one's own successes is the only way to escape one's suppressed misery. A list of essential man-objects from Buzzfeed serves much the same function, as it sets easily-attainable expectations for men while avoiding even the implication that idiosyncrasies are permissible. Years of being an adult male have taught me that the only essential objects in a man's life are those that help him authentically distinguish himself from his demographic. Equating masculinity with conformity calls to mind Barbara's final rebuke of Jon ("I thought you were different!")—which is notable primarily because no viewer of Don Jon could ever have made that mistake in judgment.

Two moments in Don Jon are particularly revelatory of the movie's implicit critique of contemporary masculinity. In the first, Jon patronizingly tells a friend that "if you do things right," you end up with a great girl, having the best sex of your life. It's a fraught moment because Jon—an under-employed porn addict with an anger management problem who also (horrors!) loves vacuuming and dusting—has no more sense of how a man "does things right" than does Buzzfeed. His sense of a man's moral obligation begins and ends with confession-eligible sins, destructive but obligatory family dinners, misogynistic male bonding exercises, and favoring weightlifting to cardio.

He even misuses the items on the Buzzfeed list. He drives his souped-up car like an ass, he uses his dressing and grooming and apartment-cleaning skills to no purpose other than casual sex with women whose names he doesn't know, and he deploys his ostentatious masculinity (one imagines him owning #27, a Leatherman) to intimidate classmates at night school, belittle his peers, and perpetuate an emotionally abusive relationship with his father.

In a second great moment of gender critique, Jon interrogates a priest who's given him the same penance for two sins: affectionate premarital sex with a woman he respects, and emotionally empty premarital sex with multiple women he doesn't. Having been assigned ten Hail Marys for each, he asks, "How did you arrive at that number?" It's a poignant question, one that could be directed to Justin Abarca, author of the Buzzfeed list.

How did "40 Things Every Self-Respecting Man Over 30 Should Own" end up including a flask and not a magazine subscription? Or "good socks" (#32) and not a pet you have to care for? Or "brown dress shoes" (#3)  and not some area of interest you might have actually read up on, rather than merely (as Abarca condones) appearing to have done so? Why forty items, rather than twenty or sixty? Why only items you can buy, and not abstractions you can access for free? What magical fairy-dust alights on a man's shoulder at thirty, making him need undershirts (#24) afterwards, but not before that age? And who is our hypothetical "self-respecting man" doing this all for, anyway? Himself? A woman who thinks "jumper cables" (#23) are more essential to a self-respecting thirty-something than, say, integrity, courage, articulateness, and generosity?

Moore Levitt

Reasonable people can disagree as to whether rom-com cliches are as destructive to a woman's sense of self and her romantic expectations as pornography is to the same things in men's lives. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether hair gel (absent from Abarca's list) is a worthy addition to a man's grooming kit, or—as Martello's eventual savior, middle-aged pothead Esther (Julianne Moore), says—entirely superfluous. But what seems beyond contention or debate is the noxious first principle proposed by Buzzfeed: that self-respect arises from a short roster of material goods, rather than strength of character, a sense of humor, and self-possession. As well to say that a woman may be judged (to borrow from one Martello voice-over) by whether her breasts are fake, her butt perfect, her willingness to give oral sex and receive a facial unambiguous, and her facility with ten or more sexual positions incontrovertible. 

The second half of Don Jon is remarkable—and surprisingly affecting—because in it we see Martello indulging what are, to him, eccentricities: playing basketball, drinking coffee, listening to and making eye contact with women when they speak, styling his hair without product, treating his friends decently, subduing his perpetually creepy and aggressive body language, and judging a woman by the way she makes him feel, not by the boxes she ticks on some teenager-ready jerk-off checklist. Maybe all those who lauded a thirty-something's version of that checklist—"40 Things Every Self-Respecting Man Over 30 Should Own"—should steal a page from Martello's revised playbook and close their eyes, imagine a man or woman whose presentation and lifestyle hasn't been pre-approved by American media, and see whether they can still find physical and emotional delight in the unsupervised oddities of a real-life man.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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