The premise of Sex Tape, which opens nationwide this Friday, is on point in our age of rampant self-documentation and fears about accidental internet celebrity…at least in theory. Married couple Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) realize their love life has wilted now that they’re working(ish) parents — she’s a mommy blogger, poised to sell her site, and he’s in radio or whatever. And with their two kids away for the night, the couple tries to spice things up by tossing back tequila shots and making their own adult home video. Then, thanks to the magic of movies and some mumbo jumbo about Jay’s habit of trading up iPads he syncs using a custom app, the video ends up in the hands of everyone he’s gifted with a secondhand device, including their best friends (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper), Annie’s potential new boss (Rob Lowe), and the mailman (Dave Allen).
It’s the setup for some bawdy laughs about what happens when you become accidental porn stars and the world wide web is given entrée into your most intimate moments. But Sex Tape, directed by Bad Teacher’s Jake Kasdan and written by Segel, Kate Angelo, and Nicholas Stoller, never makes it that far. Instead, for a movie about amateur porn, Sex Tape is fundamentally conservative in its treatment of sex.
Annie and Jay meet during college (Diaz and Segel disguise themselves as early twentysomethings by wearing sweatshirts), and they may go at it eagerly, frequently, and everywhere, but they’re still well on the road to good ol’ hetero monogamy, white picket fence and all. The video is their first excursion into even the mildly freaky, and to do it, they reach back to the musty bible of lovemaking that is The Joy of Sex, cycling through every position it depicts over a marathon three hours.
Sex Tape is only pro-sex — Annie and Jay talk about porn and how they used to watch it together — in the context of marriage. Even the porn king played by Jack Black (don’t ask) turns out to have tied the knot and to be a father of two, and lectures the couple about how making sex tapes is a sign of how “you’ve lost track of why you’re fucking in the first place.”
The real question of how to keep a long-term relationship passionate is skirted in favor of a rote message of remembering to appreciate your partner. And, despite a stale joke about the contents of a supposedly conservative character’s nightstand and how everyone’s hiding a wild side, the whole story is basically about punishing its main characters for having dabbled in minor kink.
The movie’s underlying timidity isn’t in line with its stars’ proven adventurousness in past projects — Segel’s gamely gone full frontal for the sake of laughs, while last year’s most memorable sex scene was between Diaz and a car. Sex Tape’s fundamental problem, beyond general unfunniness and implausibility, is that it seems to agree that making a video like the one Annie and Jay do is shameful.
In fact, the chickenshit film’s most daring moment has nothing to do with sex at all. It’s a sequence featuring the head of the company that’s looking to buy Annie’s blog, Hank (played by Lowe, who once had his own brush with accidental amateur porn notoriousness). With his family out of town, he’s reflecting on his past while listening to Slayer and doing some cocaine, and Annie, not wanting to be rude, does a line. The normalizing of the drug use, which comes with no terrible consequences, is edgier than anything else the movie offers — even the contents of the video itself. And that’s saying something.
Beyond the dubious claim from Black’s character that people only make sex tapes as a temporary fix for real relationship problems, Sex Tape tries to boost its stakes by having Hank’s company be concerned about values, cautioning Annie that they don’t want anything like the post she wrote about bringing the spice back to her marriage.
Instead of Annie telling them to accept her as is (and let’s face it, who she is is hardly far out there), she and her husband accept these restrictions as totally fair and scramble to keep themselves as outwardly wholesome as possible. When a character later threatens to upload the video to YouPorn if he’s not paid off, the movie can’t spin the development off for laughs the way it wants, because it’s based around the idea that the sex tape going public wouldn’t just be embarrassing, it would ruin its characters’ lives.
At a time in which people are (sometimes alarmingly) casual with things like nude selfies and revenge porn has become a thing, a movie about the race to stop a sex tape from getting out feels like a wan exercise next to the possibility of exploring what it’d be like for a suburban couple to deal with the fallout after one did.