Say what you will about Zack And Miri Make A Porno—that it’s crude, undisciplined, indifferently filmed, all the things that usually characterize a Kevin Smith production—but at least it has some honesty and candor going for it. Though ultimately a rom-com sheep in wolf’s fetish-wear, it’s true enough to its title to be about sex, too, and the complicated ways it can change a relationship. Zack and Miri make a sex tape to pay the rent, and the film devotes itself to the funny, fucked-up implications of a DIY porn production. By contrast, the desperate comedy Sex Tape starts with a married couple trying to put some spark back into their relationship, but runs away from that premise as quickly as possible. What it’s really about is the pair trying to stop their sex tape from disseminating, which turns out to be a great way to avoid the issue altogether.
Incidentally, decades from now—or just a few years, even—cultural anthropologists will notice a wealth of material in Sex Tape about the inexplicable occupations and technology of the mid-2010s. Half of a typical suburban couple with two kids, Annie (Cameron Diaz) takes a meeting in the board room of a Parker Brothers-esque toy company, which appears eager to bring her mommy-blog under its corporate umbrella. (For the 0-to-4 set, no less.) For his part, her husband Jay (Jason Segel) has an even vaguer job as a music editor, one that supplies him with so many iPads—with amazing resolution, he claims, with little prompting—that he gives them away to family and friends. Their 21st-century positions exist mainly for awkward plotting purposes: Jay’s iPads are all connected to “the cloud,” which causes the inadvertent sex-tape upload, while Annie won’t get that dump-truck full of blog money if the toy company and its uptight CEO (Rob Lowe) catch wind of it.
There’s some early promise, though, in the more everyday problem of exhausted married types trying to defibrillate their flatlined sex life. After 10 years, two kids, and weird jobs that sap all their energy, Annie and Jay have fallen so far out of their old groove that they’ve all but forgotten what to do. One night, with the kids away, Annie comes up with the idea to film themselves doing all the positions in The Joy Of Sex, correctly assuming they’d get off on the roleplay and naughty adventure. But Jay doesn’t remember to erase this three-hour marathon in the morning, and it somehow ends up in the cloud; later that day, he gets a text from an iPad owner who liked the recording, so Annie and Jay have to spend the rest of the movie tracking this person down.
Segel, Diaz, and director Jake Kasdan teamed up a few years ago on Bad Teacher, a Bad Santa derivative with an appealing raunchiness, and Segel and his frequent writing/directing partner, Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Neighbors), co-wrote the script with Kate Angelo. Segel and Diaz both have an up-for-anything attitude that brings the right spirit to the actual creation of the sex tape, which is playful, unashamed, and a little sweet. But Sex Tape remains a deceptive title, because the film quickly loses interest in their marital bugaboos, and instead follows them on a frantic journey into the night. Have their best friends (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper) seen the footage? How about Annie’s would-be boss? Grandma? The mailman? Jay and Annie have to go house-by-house, confiscating iPads. (Which really, by the way, make their epic lovemaking session look fantastically clear, much better than the murky visuals that are usually uploaded to amateur porn sites. Perhaps the director’s cut of Sex Tape includes an iPad offer code.)
A third-act surprise cameo gives Jay and Annie’s all-night quest a fair comic payoff, but Sex Tape is a case study in how little interest American movies—and especially American sex comedies—have in dealing with sex as anything other than a source of cheap giggles and nonstop humiliation. The film seems to acknowledge our sexual fears and hang-ups in one scene with Lowe, whose squeaky-clean image masks some shocking excess behind closed doors, but the sequence embodies them more than it exposes them. Chasing after the iPads relieves Annie and Jay from having to deal with their problems in bed—and relieves this sex comedy from having to deal with sex.