By Preston Wilder
It’s a good week for has-beens. Ageing action heroes take down an ageing supervillain in the utterly expendable Expendables 3, while back in the real world (we use the term loosely) a married couple lament their damp squib of a sex life in Sex Tape. They used to be insatiable (and athletic), but kids and jobs have knocked the stuffing out of them. Trying to recapture the spark, they film themselves in the act – a sex tape, like Pam and Tommy Lee used to make – but the video accidentally gets copied on friends’ and strangers’ iPads and our heroes rush around trying to retrieve them. “If the mailman’s seen it, we’re moving!” Annie (Cameron Diaz) tells Jay (Jason Segel), getting a bit hysterical.
Hysteria about sex is part of the point here. Sex Tape got negative reviews in the US, which isn’t surprising (smutty comedies often do badly with critics) – but what was surprising was the tone of the reviews, which took the film to task for not being dirty enough. It’s true: Sex Tape, despite its ‘18’ rating, lacks the spectacularly gross jokes we’ve learned to associate with Hollywood comedy. The big comic set-piece has Jay and Annie visiting Annie’s boss (Rob Lowe) to steal his iPad – but the jokes involve Jay being chased by a dog and Annie talking reallyreallyfast after doing coke. It’s all a bit 80s.
The retro feel is deliberate. Sex Tape (even the title is retro) is aimed squarely at older viewers, and what’s interesting – and funny – is the way it takes hysteria about sex (not unlike the reaction of those US critics who demanded more smut) and tamps it down, shaping the result into social comment. The joke, increasingly, is that nobody cares about Jay and Annie’s sex tape – because, in our wired age, sex is out in the open, or at least the internet. A visit to YouPorn (run by an uncredited Jack Black) confirms that millions of others have done what Jay and Annie did; “Does it really matter that much?” muse our heroes, and of course it doesn’t. What’s really embarrassing these days (to quote one of the film’s best gags) isn’t to have a saucy video of yourself leak online – it’s to still be watching Season 1 of Breaking Bad, when everyone else has moved on.
Sex Tape front-loads the saucy stuff, especially the prologue when younger Jay and Annie shag at every opportunity. Then they decide to get hitched, and sink into celibacy (even Annie’s dad sees it coming, when he learns they’re getting married: “Well, goodbye sex!”) – but the film isn’t like those toxic comedies (The Change-Up, say) that treat married life as a hellish wasteland. Our heroes haven’t lost their feelings for each other – they’re just too permanently knackered to act on them. This, refreshingly, is a comedy with a married couple who fit well together. Again and again, Jay tries to keep a secret from Annie and just can’t do it; they’re a team, for better or worse. Even the inevitable jokes about the trials of parenthood are sometimes cute, like the fed-up dad showing off his brace of twin babies with their wonderfully different personalities: “This one likes watermelon. This one’s kind of an asshole”.
Like those babies, Sex Tape is a case of double personality. Half of it (more than half, in fact) is mind-numbingly stupid; like Date Night from a few years ago, another misunderstood comedy that went for a more old-fashioned feel, the film is often lame and long-winded. The visit to Lowe’s pad, with a dildo in the nightstand and a Lion King painting on the wall, strains for laughs it has no hope of getting (though I did chuckle when Jay, being pursued by the dog, falls from a window in the background, closely followed by the dog). The other half, however, is an earnest attempt to express something – a sense of being ‘old’ (in your late 30s, say) and increasingly unable to keep up with changing mores, let alone technology: “You know the Cloud?…”
Many of the problems assailing our couple – precocious kids, stress at work, clients who demand a “wholesome” image, like in a Doris Day comedy – are familiar from decades of TV sitcoms. Others are new, like living in a world where a girl might text you a photo of her boobs, or you do a search for ‘giving CPR to a dog’ and instead get a list of the nearest Starbucks outlets. We live at the mercy of apps and computers, and the people who know how to use them (“Nobody understands the Cloud,” claims Jay darkly). Sex Tape starts off seemingly obsessed with sex then, by the end, has become as relaxed – or indifferent – about it as the rest of this brave new world. If only violence could be equally expendable.
DIRECTED BY Jake Kasdan
STARRING Jason Segel, Cameron Diaz, Rob Corddry
US 2014 94 mins