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When I first heard about the two new movies discussing sex addiction, I figured it was another studio battle royale in this vein. But having seen ‘Don Jon’ and ‘Thanks For Sharing’, I discovered that the shared topic is the only thing shared, as the two films discuss and view addiction in wildly different ways. And both are worth watching in their own right.
Everything changes when Jon meets Scarlet Johansson’s character, who has the ridiculously unbelievable name of Barbara Sugarman. Just, no, that doesn’t work. It’s the name of a Florida grandmother, played by Shirley MacLaine, not Scarlett Johansson as a hottie. Anyway, Jon decides that Barbara is so hot that he’ll change whatever she wants him to change about himself. And boy, does she want to change him. Note: this is not a positive way to start a relationship. We learn that, as Jon is deluded by his porn, Barbara is deluded by her romantic comedies, thinking that she can mold real life into that sort of tale. Blinded by her hotness, Jon obeys for a while, not sensing that she’s not worth the trouble. She forbids him from cleaning his apartment himself, and orders him to use a cleaning service. She sends him to night classes so he would have a degree, ostensibly so he’d be a more appropriate match for her.
Some of the most effective scenes come from Jon’s interactions with his family, with Tony Danza as his a-hole father and a fantastic Brie Larson as his mostly-silent sister, and with his minister, cloaked in darkness in the confessional. Both types of interactions brilliantly show the various facets of Jon’s life, and serve as clever (and hilarious) backdrops for his emotional and intellectual awakening.
At school, he meets Julianne Moore’s character, an honest, no-bullshit woman with a tragic history. She helps Jon realize that he shouldn’t have to change who he is to make a woman happy, because this kind of unfulfilling relationship is what causes him to still rely on porn to meet some nebulous emotional need. This is where his obsession with porn comes from, and it’s an obsession that can easily be cured if he lets himself be vulnerable in a real relationship.
Not so easily fixed is the addiction in ‘Thanks For Sharing’, a drama, as opposed to the comedy of ‘Don Jon’, about true sexual addiction, helped but never cured by group therapy sessions in the style of Alcoholics Anonymous. Mark Ruffalo plays Adam, who when we meet him is 5 years sober – from sex, masturbation, porn, and all kinds of other things he needs to keep himself from. He knows the tricks behind staying clean by now, and he teaches new members like the always good and hilarious Josh Gad. When he travels, he has the TV removed from his room. He never takes the subway, as it’s full of unknown obstacles.
Despite his regimen of control, Adam meets and falls for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Phoebe, bringing up a new slew of issues for him to deal with. On their first date, Phoebe says she used to date an alcoholic, and asks Adam, “You’re not an addict, right?” to which Adam responds, “I am not an alcoholic.” It’s a tricky conversation to have so early, but you know that this untruth is going to come back to bite him in the ass. But how does a person tell someone he barely knows that he has this incredibly stigmatized and misunderstood kind of addiction?
Like Scarlett’s Barbara, Phoebe is not very likeable, not very accepting of Adam, whose judgment, like Jon’s, is probably clouded by Phoebe’s looks. Consumed by the effort to make his addiction less of a problem, Adam even overlooks hints of Phoebe’s own serious behavioral issues. Unlike Don Jon, Adam learns that the best thing to control his addiction is not an eye-opening and paradigm-shifting relationship, but the community provided by his mentor and other addicts in the group. Along with Josh Gad, a standout in this group is, actually, Pink, in a good, energetic, and amiable performance. The blossoming friendship between Gad and Pink becomes the most interesting relationship in the movie, and it proves that you need to have a solid support system to get through any hardship.
This seems to be the message of ‘Thanks For Sharing’, that a person needs the help and camaraderie of friends and loved ones in order to overcome serious problems. In contrast, ‘Don Jon’ seems to say that, like in romantic comedies, sometimes things can be solved by one lovely, caring person. Both messages are valid, since they are dealing with discrete kinds of problems, but it’s interesting to note the difference.
If you can only see one film that shows copious amounts of porn, make it ‘Don Jon’. While ‘Thanks For Sharing’ is well done and helps convey the severity of this often-mocked addiction, ‘Don Jon’ is fun, funny, and an incredibly well-edited triumph from Joey Gordon-Levitt. Also, there’s nothing better than seeing Joey driving while singing aloud to ‘Good Vibrations’ (the Marky Mark version, not the Beach Boys).