Joe Swanberg has directed many acclaimed feature films and web shows, including Hannah Takes The Stairs, Alexander the Last, Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas and the IFC.com series Young American Bodies. He also co-directed and acted in the breakout horror film V/H/S. His films have premiered at Sundance, Berlin and SXSW and regularly appear on TV and in film festivals and theaters around the world.
Jay, Jason Segel’s character in the new film Sex Tape, apparently buys so many new models of iPads that he has gifted about 10 older models to friends, family and acquaintances (such as the mailman) over the years. Early in the film, he explains some convoluted system that requires him to have two iPads at a time for his massive music collection, but then we find out he bought this latest model because of its higher resolution screen. I wasn’t sure why he needed the fancy screen if he was just listening to music on the things, but it soon became clear that the filmmakers were bending over backwards to tell an analog story in a digital age.
Jake Kasdan’s movie is not doing well with critics or audiences, and as a fan of the actors and filmmakers involved I feel bad heaping additional negativity on the pile, but I’m interested in the reality of technology and the ways various technologies affect our lives, so this seems worth investigating. If it’s 2014 and you’re dealing with a digital file accidentally getting out of your hands and into the world, you should no longer be concerned with retrieving physical objects like iPads, the way the characters are in this movie. That ship has sailed. Your problem is now the instant ability to copy and distribute the ones and zeros that make up your naked body and its various positions.
Sex Tape, as is, should really take place in 1987, when the Jay character has just purchased a fancy new home video camera to record his son’s championship baseball game. With a bit of spark missing from their relationship, Jay and his wife Annie (Cameron Diaz) use this new video camera to record themselves having sex. Then Jay accidentally makes copies of the sex tape, instead of the championship baseball game, and he and Annie must retrieve these 10 VHS tapes from friends and family before anyone watches them.
Once you invoke the iPad and the Internet you open a Pandora’s Box of problems for narrative storytelling, and the people behind Sex Tape just aren’t up to the task of dealing with these problems. One of my friends used to talk about watching Seinfeld in syndication and realizing that most of the episodes wouldn’t work now that everyone has cell phones. The characters can’t get lost in a parking garage anymore, for instance, no matter how big and confusing. One of them would find the car and just call the others. Or they would have taken a quick photo of the section they parked in, the way I do when I find myself in a big, confusing parking garage.
I actually end up in a lot of conversations with filmmakers about solving the cellphone problem, because it’s a big roadblock for many scenarios, especially now that phones also have access to the Internet. Watching Sex Tape, I could feel the filmmakers having these conversations. “How do we contain the sex tape so that it’s reasonable that the characters could get all of the copies back?” “Maybe it’s on a device like an iPad?” “OK, but we need multiple copies to be out in the world.” “Maybe the character buys lots of iPads and gives them away as gifts?” “OK, but how does the sex tape get on all those other iPads?” “He downloads a sync application that puts it on the other iPads?” “OK, I guess that could work.”
Well, not really, because as a person who lives in the real world and has a rudimentary knowledge of how things work, I’m left sitting in the theater wondering all sorts of things that I shouldn’t be wondering, like who the fuck gives the mailman a used iPad without first wiping the contents off of it? In addition to being stupid, with identity theft so rampant, it’s also just kind of weird. Because in order for Jay’s new iPad to sync to the other iPads, they would all have to have this sync application still on them. So if this sync application is still on the mailman’s iPad, what else is still on there? Family photos? Access to Jay’s email? His various passwords? Why is this Jay guy, who fetishizes Apple products to such a major degree, so completely clueless about how the things actually work?
I fear that these complaints make me sound like some tech nerd picking apart the Sandra Bullock film The Net for being unrealistic, but c’mon, the movie both wants us to believe that things like the cloud and sync applications exist, so that the characters can get in this mess in the first place, but it also wants us to play completely dumb about how any of them actually work, so that the analog storyline makes some sort of sense in the digital world.
Here’s another example, then I’ll shut up about it. The video ends up in the hands of a young kid who attempts to blackmail Jay for $25,000. The kid claims that if Jay doesn’t pay up, he will upload the video to YouPorn.com for the whole world to see. Jay and Annie manage to find the physical headquarters of YouPorn (see, we’re already in a nonsensical world where the solution to an Internet problem involves a brick-and-mortar office location) and convince the owner not to upload the video. There, problem solved. Because apparently there is only one website on the Internet where the kid can upload this video. Forget the fact that we as an audience were literally just subjected to a scene where the owner of YouPorn rattles off the names of 30 competing websites.
Maybe these massive suspensions of disbelief would be more bearable if the movie were better, but to me they’re so egregious that we might as well be talking about characters who don’t know how a television set works. Or a radio. Or how to set the alarm on their bedside clock. But these are not Luddites. Cameron Diaz is a fucking mommy blogger. Her job is on the Internet. And Jason Segel buys so many iPads he can’t even remember all the people he has given old ones to. In this scenario, I have to believe that one them knows how to quickly and easily remove the video from the other devices from the comfort of home. Or at the very least, one of these smart, competent adults would explore that option before engaging in a laundry list of stupid, illegal behavior.
I wish the makers of Sex Tape had decided instead to explore a couple that was dealing with the fact that their sex tape leaked, and wrapping their heads around the idea that their friends and family could watch it on the Internet. The film’s star, Cameron Diaz, could probably tell you all about it. Remember when that weird S&M video of 19-year-old Diaz surfaced in 2004? She has done her best to scrub all evidence of the thing from the world, but even as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood she couldn’t keep the photos and videos off the Internet, despite drawn-out legal battles and thousands of “cease and desist” emails. And that was 10 years ago! How can I, in the present, derive any enjoyment from watching that same woman break into a warehouse under the assumption that smashing a server with a baseball bat will solve her problem?
And besides, the lesson we all learned from the Cameron Diaz S&M video and the million other sex tapes that are out there is that it doesn’t really matter if they leak. Sex tapes have helped people launch careers, but as far as I know they haven’t destroyed any, because it’s just people having consensual sex with a camera in the room. If you’re curious, you watch, then you go back to your life.
The most interesting scene in Sex Tape comes when two of Jay and Annie’s friends, played by Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper, secretly watch the sex tape and it turns them on so much that they immediately have sex in Annie and Jay’s car. This is followed by a scene in which Corddry and Kemper boost their friends’ egos by telling them how sexy they are and how exciting it was to watch the video. Whoa! That’s the kind of revolutionary sex-positive message I can get behind.
Having just watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the other day, about a simian flu that quickly spreads through humans, I briefly dreamed of a movie where Cordrry and Kemper go home and make their own sex tape, and soon everyone’s doing it, and the sheer number of sex tapes creates a world in which nobody can ever again be shamed for having and enjoying sex. No such luck in this movie, because the characters’ vanity wins out and they are so disgusted by themselves in the video that they destroy even their own personal copy. Great. Perhaps this analog movie is best suited to the 1950s.