Critic's Grade: C+
Are Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel the Tracy & Hepburn of our age? This is less a jab at modern-day rom-com pairings—though, y'know, ick—than an appreciation of the difficulties faced when patently unlikable egotists careen heedlessly through others' lives to clean up their own embarrassments. It's one thing to sparkle through contrived circumstances, but in Sex Tape—about a couple that films their naughty deeds and then forgets to delete the footage—the duo willingly flesh out an otherwise impossible plotline by emphasizing unscripted elements of character.
To not bone at every opportunity his absurdly gorgeous wife, Segel must be something of a creepily technophiliac porn hound (never mentioned directly but behind every glassy gaze held a bit too long). To publicly write about their sexual difficulties while hawking her mommy blog among corporate parents, to spark her beloved's libido via the video potential of his fetishized iPad and then instantly fall to psychotic break once realizing he'd failed to erase the file, Diaz must be pathologically unstable (and her hair-trigger histrionics admit neither perspective nor remorse). To immediately launch desperate expeditions of burglary and destruction, both parties must be aware that any action would be preferable to a moment's contemplation.
These are tough tones to convey adorably in a movie where astonishingly little happens, and, at first glance, the two stars are helped not at all by their director. At first glance, really, the film seems just an inexplicably long and foul-mouthed (and, should be said, poorly shot) Apple commercial, but there's a rather more cynical vision behind Sex Tape. Jake Kasdan first brought Segel and Diaz together in 2011's Bad Teacher, but this film hearkens back to Kasdan's earliest assault upon the multiplex. The mad rush for nonsensical capers to further unwanted ambitions, the blithe acceptance of recreational drug use, the cruelly-lingering dissection of elitist defeatism—Sex Tape is most reminiscent of Orange County, and Kasdan invokes the same withering glare upon a suburban hellscape with, alas, the same disdain for cinema he's always held high.
(OK, Zero Effect may have been Kasdan's technical feature debut, but that film is remembered only by Portlanders cheered by the occasional St. Francis exteriors and, perhaps, by the creators of Bored To Death.)
In his way, Kasdan is a class-fueled satirist who has lost all hope of redemption. His films revolve around the pointless struggles of self-obsessed ciphers aching for seamless absorption into the currently mandated greater good, and, uniquely among this sort of vehicle, their happy endings require only an eventual glimmer of awareness. Any greater moral good isn't so much denied as discarded as impossible, and contemplation would only ever be forced by someone not bound by the dictates of polite society. Porn impresario Jack Black, say, whose query—why was the sex tape made?—first forces the grudging glance at inner lives that enables our heartfelt conclusion.
That wouldn't actually be anyone's question, of course. The answers are too sad and too obvious: engendered degradation, kink-fueled brazenness, boredom, money. What really drives the film's central conceit is our shared fascination with the appetite for amateur sex tapes made by folks that look nothing like Cameron Diaz. Why are these a thing? How did these become big enough business to enable the outlying cast-offs to gain traction?
The answers here seem just as obvious, really, but the sadness implied is a little more complicated. Actual couples effortlessly betray the sort of lived-in physical intimacy everyone craves, and sloppy camerawork inevitably focuses upon those scabbed-knee/burnt-carpet details. Consider homegrown porn the natural counter to indie filmmaking. Is that instinct of the young and beautiful to artfully wallow in deadened hopelessness any better than whatever makes couples capture the most private of acts for theoretical public enjoyment? Sex Tape, for all its faults, focuses upon those bruises and burn marks—never showily and only so long as to suggest the unknowable back stories, but continuously nevertheless.
There are, still, so many faults. The two-dimensional characters shoved through ludicrous scenarios to negligible ends. The sudden tonal changes both pandering and distancing. The pop-punk montage scenes inserted whenever momentum dims. After six features, Kasdan demonstrates such disregard for his chosen craft that each and every nuance and texture seems accidental. Rare the Hollywood philistine to place the emotive cum-shot after narrative climax, after all, but those viewers who like the movie enough to wait out the eventual pre-credit snippets of sex tape footage shall be rewarded beyond possible expectation. However he feels about movies—and hatred seems a fair assumption based upon these last 15 years—Jake Kasdan does love people.
The director is, of course, the son of Lawrence Kasdan—the man who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Ark and later unfurled The Big Chill and Grand Canyon; the man whose storytelling gifts divorced heroism from commitment for all subsequent matinee idols and set the groove for boomer self-mythologies. The younger Kasdan's utter disregard for coherent motivators may be just coincidence or skipped trait, but, alongside the disappointment with an elder generation, it's hard not to notice how desperately his filmic universes bend themselves to best cushion the worst actions of awful protagonists who learn no lesson whatsoever except, in the weirdest way, a forgiveness that encompasses all frailties. As that old critic Potter Stewart wrote, heart can't be defined, but we know it when we see it.