In recent weeks I have watched two films that, while polar opposites in terms of cinematic tone, had strikingly similar messages to convey concerning the topic of addiction.
The first, Don Jon, written, directed by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, on face value simply an exploration of a young man’s addiction to internet porn, turns out to have a lot more to say than meets the eye. Here’s the official preview:
I enjoyed this film, much more than I wanted to. I went in with a natural bias: having never been a ladies man in my youth (I did okay, but I was never quite the Don Juan figure I longed to be back then), I always felt a little threatened by the fellas that possessed an animal magnetism (or a thick-skinned resistance to constant rejection from the fairer sex, if you perhaps dig a little deeper) that attracted the women. The thought of a handsome, well-built dude like Levitt’s Don Martello having a preference to masturbation over a bedroom romp with a real-life woman seemed absurd to me. Who in their right mind would admit to that? A legion of horny teenagers would have cardiac episodes in their dimly lit, weird smelling rooms, their oily faces awash with disbelief/disgust over this idiot forgoing human contact for the lonely, digital facsimile.
It got me thinking, what makes Jon prefer digital to analog, biologically speaking? In the film, he says that the girls in porn are willing to do anything to please their man, whereas in his real-life encounters he finds that the women he meets are more reserved by comparison. What he fails to see is that these women are putting on a performance; they are “acting”, though not in the Meryl Streep sense. They are trying to convey the illusion that having every orifice stuffed with the appendages of sweaty strange men is not only appealing, but cosmically divine. Actual women, of course, don’t need to sell this lie. If something hurts or makes them uncomfortable they will tell us, and rightly so. Jon wants women to be props when it comes to sex, just a thing for him to bend and pose into whatever position he needs to get off. On a computer, there is control. There is a pause button. There is choice. One day he might want blondes getting fucked by machines, the next he might want a gang bang in an abandoned warehouse in the Czech Republic. He is literally spoilt for choice, seemingly the only limits are his imagination and download speed. Real life just doesn’t have that sort of freedom.
Things are going great for Jon, that is until he meets Barbara Sugarman, played by the lovely Scarlett Johansson. One look and Jon is transfixed. Barbara epitomizes everything Jon desires in a woman, at least in the physical sense (to Jon, this appears to be the only aspect of a woman that he finds appealing to begin with). Jon pursues her via social media, and a courtship follows. It isn’t long before Jon and Barbara consummate the relationship, and Jon is left disappointed following their sexual encounter. He immediately runs to the safety blanket that is his computer and the smut he so desperately requires. Barbara catches him red-handed, so to speak, and Jon is able to conjure up a flimsy excuse that Barbara somehow buys. Perhaps she is so smitten that she doesn’t want to really believe that Jon would feel the need to degrade himself in that way, particularly only mere moments after their tryst.
But clearly Barbara had no inclination to the depths of Jon’s depravity. No woman could satiate his needs, not in the way that he wanted at least.
I often wonder about the way in which addiction is treated in these modern times, particularly in America. Everyone has a new addiction, a faux-tangible thing to dump their sorrow and point to for the mistakes they make in life. Fuck up your relationship? No problem, it must be the porn/alcohol/drug addiction rearing its head. And while I don’t wish to make light of the people who are impacted by these afflictions, I am curious as to what we blamed our misery on back when my parents (and their parents before them) were busy raising a family, earning a living, making mortgage repayments etc etc etc.
While I have no doubt that Jon fucked up his union with Barbara by using porn, I’m sure there was much more going on with Jon and porn was just the catalyst. To me, he hid behind his “addiction” as a way to keep a safe distance from a traditional, mutual affectionate relationship built on a strong foundation of trust.
I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative for those that haven’t seen Don Jon, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I don’t buy the notion that he – or anyone, really – is truly addicted to porn. He likes it, he enjoys the release of endorphins post-orgasm, and that’s about it. Addiction to me suggests that he is ruining his life because of it.
Another film that deals with addiction, only in a much less satisfying way in my opinion, is Thanks for Sharing. I’m not sure I’ve seen another film that had as many unlikable characters in recent memory. I recall despising just about everyone in Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, even the generally loveable Jack Black.
Thanks for Sharing explores the trials and tribulations of a trio of people as they navigate through the 12 step program in their ongoing recovery from sex addiction. The thing is, the cast is top-notch. Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins are generally a sure thing when it comes to entertaining, thought-provoking films, and their respective performances are usually memorable in some way. Gwyneth Paltrow not so much.
Here’s the official trailer:
In order to fully invest in a character in a movie, we need to feel empathy for them. Otherwise, what is the point? If I can’t pity them, why am I bothering to waste ninety minutes to see what happens to them? With Adam, Mike and Neil (played by Ruffalo, Robbins and Josh Gad respectively), I could not have cared less if they were dropped in a vat of acid and thrown off the Brooklyn Bridge. Upon reflection, perhaps it would’ve made for a more entertaining film had they chosen to take the characters in that direction. But alas, we were burdened with the task of being expected to root for these deplorable people.
Pop princess Pink (aka Alecia Moore), to my way of thinking at least, gives the most convincing performance in this film – and she isn’t even an actor!
Ruffalo’s Adam is handsome, has a good job and a nice Manhattan pad. Why then is he so gosh darn unhappy? Because the poor guy is addicted to sex. He is able to attract really beautiful women and have sex with them, and because of this curse, he is miserable. Huh?!
I think this really speaks to the human condition. We are trained from an early age to seek out a mate for life. We are bludgeoned with this imagery from day one. Disney burrows its way into our developing collective psyche while we’re still too young and stupid to know any better, so we’re programmed to believe that this is the way of the world. So when we get older and try to find a suitable partner, we are disillusioned when we discover that 99.6% of the population are reprehensibly shitty human beings, seemingly not fit for much besides propagating the species.
So we settle. Then we’re miserable. In 2014, if you cheat on your partner, you can write it off as an addiction to sex. Evidently, adultery is okay as long as you’re an addict. You have a problem and need to talk about it with a bunch of other spoiled fuckers.
The fact that there is even the existence of a facility that caters to this bullshit screams volumes about what we’ve become as a society: a bunch of whiners that need to find an excuse for every shortcoming we have.
Can we not just accept that as humans we are fundamentally flawed from the beginning, and rather than trying to justify shitty decision-making and “fix” everything, just accept these flaws and try to get on with things?
Should my wife, for example, be expected to forgive me for cheating on her if I explain to her that I am addicted to sex? Once she stopped laughing hysterically at my flimsy excuse, she would boot my ass out of the house so quick my divorce papers would spin.
I love sex. Love it. As far as hobbies go, its right up there with watching basketball for me. It might even rank at the very top of the list. Am I addicted to it? Maybe. I want it semi-frequently, like pretty much everyone I imagine. But I don’t buy sex addiction in the first place.
Are chimpanzees sex addicts too? Why not? We’re 98.7% genetically similar to them. They don’t have group counseling for addiction though. Or if they do, it usually runs at the same time as mite-picking and afternoon masturbation.