Sex Tape: The Pornografication of Hollywood. PLUS: The Best of 2014, So Far

by Armond White
A bawdy comedy with no sex appeal, and a baker’s dozen of the best

Surely the new comedy Sex Tape was made title first. Jokes might have come next — as when radio disk jockey Jay (Jason Segel) and his wife Annie (Cameron Diaz) burble Tourette’s-style repetitions of the word “sex” in every scene for the first ten minutes. Characterization and plot seem secondary considerations: Jay and Annie go from lusty courtship and marriage to sexless parenthood then get the idea to rekindle the old heat by making video of themselves in flagrante delicto on Jay‘s new iPad — a reckless move they attempt to cover up through routine chases, pratfalls and typical gross-out stunts. The film’s sexual vulgarity is mild compared to that of most recent films, but the reliance on formula is as unoriginal as a skin flick’s plot. Sex Tape represents the pornographication of Hollywood.

Director Jake Kasdan’s pandering — and failure of nerve — starts with his title. He references the scandalous method that’s recently been used to leverage celebrity for numerous media stars but ignores the fame-whore phenomenon that made sex tapes a prominent sub-genre. Kasdan’s screwball premise pretends to reveal the moral timidity of middle-class Americans. Couples like Jay and Annie have come through feminism’s various stages and the porn boom twice (the 1970s and the Internet era), which led to the domestication of libertine impulses — such as the illustrated manual The Joy of Sex that Jay and Annie use as a script. 

Kasdan’s own script includes a post-coital mantra in which Annie admits her love of sex with Jay and he reverses the compliment. Their facile exchange only half-works; Diaz’s rump-shaker impudence is doused by Segel’s blandness. Kasdan doesn’t capitalize on Diaz’s unintentional sex kitten parody in The Counselor. Instead, he ignores the proven laws of screwball comedy chemistry by casting these two in the hottie-and-schmuck mode of Judd Apatow.

Sex Tape makes it unignorable that Hollwood’s liberalism has gone past cynical, judgmental views to make sexual indecency a new standard — as in The Hangover, Bridesmaids, any Judd Apatow film or the reality-TV series with which some sex-tape celebrities get rewarded. Those standards — and the havoc they wreak on marriage, parenting, citizenship — should have been the subject of Kasdan’s satire; perhaps mocking Annie and Jay’s failure to live down to today’s low morality. 

Don’t be alarmed that Annie and Jay’s video falls into the hands of a child (an obnoxious brat). The point is to defuse sexuality by treating it as kids’ stuff. Sex Tape avoids genuine adult sex concerns: Age is no issue, nor is there any emotional subtext to the lull in Annie and Jay’s romping, or their easily overcome shame. When Jay avers “Everyone has an 11-inch dildo in their nightstand,” Annie sighs “That’s a beautiful metaphor” as assent. But Sex Tape’s hapless gallivanting doesn’t earn metaphor status. 

Jay’s synthetic reduction of America to covert pervs is an enormous presumption (and hypocritical at heart). Plus, Kasdan has no instinct for innuendo or bawdiness. This isn’t even smutty, it’s just inane, and after the sexual breakthroughs and insights of Francois Ozon’s Young and Beautiful it’s unacceptable. (Even cameos by Rob Lowe and Jack Black fail to play off their familiar notoriety.) Kasdan’s superficial understanding of sex and emotion is limited to rap and R&B songs in the background. This probably came second, with a hint of formulaic racial fetishizing. 

Sex Tape is Sony’s big studio rip-off of indie bum Kevin Smith’s 2008 Zack and Miri Make A Porno – another flirtation with licentiousness that proves the “legitimate” and “illegitimate” industries are not that far apart: Their shared intent is to pander to our lowest expectations. 

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Since there’s no end in sight to Hollywood’s copycat syndrome, it’s time to make a mid-year assessment of 2014’s best, most original, movies so far. Don’t give up on movies yet.

Dormant Beauty, by Marco Bellocchio, analyzes Italy’s body politic, connecting topical issues to personal relationships with scope and depth.

300: Rise of an Empire, by Noam Murro, is a rare, superior sequel that extends Zack Synder’s phenomenal vision, using myth and eroticism as moral history. 

The Lego Movie, by the Philip Lord-Chris Miller team, satirized consumerism so boldly — yet slyly — that jaded viewers mistook it for Toy Story XX.

Me and You, by Bernardo Bertolucci, explores brother-sister empathy as inherent family feeling and basic social awareness.

Journey to the West, by Stephen Chow, turns Chinese folk culture into global parody — Jaws and Close Encounters as templates for public fears in perpetual combat with private hopes.

Young and Beautiful, by Francois Ozon, looks at a young woman’s risk-tasking sexuality. Its timely profundity plumbs the soul of a demographic.

Rob the Mob, by Raymond DeFelitta, tells the true story (and love story) of a New York youth seeking revenge for ethnic insults that lead to comedy then tragedy.

Blended, by Frank Coraci, offers another Adam Sandler take on conservative family and community values that is wildly original and affectionate.

The Last Sentence, by Jan Troell, is a bio-pic about moral and political paradox — Swedish anti-Nazi journalist Torgny Karl Segerstedt wrestling with his fidelity to three different women.

Palo Alto, by Gia Coppola, and Affluenza, by Kevin Asch, take the temperature of teenage loneliness, vulnerability and ambition. Two moody, ethical deepenings of a too-often trivial genre.

Maladies, by Carter, revisits the 1960s as an era of repression to find human poetry in the lives of misfits — plus unforgettable characterizations by James Franco, Catherine Keener and David Strathairn.

Jimmy P, by Arnaud Depleschin, reenacts the rehabilitation of a Plains Indian WWII veteran (Benecio del Toro), a unique insight into military and civilian Americana.

There’s a mix of high art and Pop in the above list. Puzzled readers should know: That’s what I’m always looking for.  The great, world-conquering phenomenon of cinema (the movies) is that through beautifully conceived imagery, amazing rhythm and surprising life-likeness, filmmakers are able to blend the profound with the common and make it extraordinary. Bellocchio’s view of political conflict is all the more affecting for the way it captures the Everyperson truths of love and communication. The rare redemption of 3D in 300: Rise of an Empire comes from its resemblance to the ancient arts but with modern, sensuous panache. And Bertolucci’s understanding of personal idiosyncrasy lifts youth experience — and the teen movie — to a level of perception and feeling that all those ’80s John Hughes flicks secretly aspired to. And  surely the late John Hughes would cream at the way Bertolucci resurrected David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to express the deepest human passion — also something Gia Coppola and Kevin Asch understand.

Movies are also a political art form. Not just in the complicated way that Jan Troell and Carter explicitly deal with political and social complications but in the fact that movies appeal to the general public’s interest as a way of connecting with their feelings and their portion of the polity. This is special. And it’s why films as false as Sex Tape and as elitist as Boyhood don’t make the Mid-Year list and never will. The noxious reduction of human experience — and film art — to the trifle of media carnality and class narcissism needs criticism to be exposed and refuted. Boyhood doesn’t represent a popular, unified celebration of common experience; it is simultaneously lowbrow and elitist — a film that is overpraised only because it replicates the snide, insular, coterie biases of a degraded film culture. 
    
But Movies themselves still hold potential.  That’s what the marvelous and popular — though misunderstood — Lego Movie proves. It’s a justification of capitalism that also holds capitalism to account for our spiritual well-being. The Lego Movie has that in common with Journey to the West, Rob the Mob and Blended. Who could ask for more from any art form?

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.