When it's not digging up obscure or outsider horror films to distribute, Troma trolls the never-ending world of '60s -'80s sexploitation for a few choice camp/kitsch titles. In the past, they have put out such silly sleaze as Sugar Cookies and Stuck on You. They have also dabbled in the more stupefying side of softcore, pushing such crappy carnality as Blood Sisters of Lesbian Sin and Foreplay. Now comes another nugget from the post-Watergate world of the sexual revolution de-evolution. A joint effort between Oscar winning editor Ralph Rosenblum and director Carl Gurevich, Acting Out wants to be a timely take on human horniness and the elements that drive our desire. But it turns out to be a rather long road to travel and there's not a lot of fun or actual entertainment along the way.
An ad is placed in a prominent skin magazine. It makes a simple request. People interested in discussing and possibly performing their deepest sexual fantasies can come and audition to be part of a filmed experiment. A group of documentarians, along with a company of accomplished adult performers, will film the applicants as they describe their desires, and then pick a few of the more provocative entries to fully realize before the camera. After wading through the weirdoes and the intimidating, the troubling and the terrifying, the chosen participants are invited to a country estate, the better to capture the planned erotica, uninterrupted. Everyone enjoys the idea of sex, yet for some, the true spice only comes from their own private longings. We meet a woman who longs for her college professor, while another demands some quality time with the New York Jets. A black paperboy wants an all white girl orgy, while a hyper-sexual couple hopes to play a goofy game of patient and nurse. With clowns and pilgrims, role playing and role reversal, the corporeal combinations seem endless. Yet what we really learn is that when Acting Out a fantasy, some people take the notion a little too far and expose more than just their privates along the way.
Acting Out is an artifact from an artificial time. Describing itself as an enlightened look at sex in the swinging '70s, but actually more like a peep show with severe psychological issues, this mock-documentary plays fast and loose with perversions as it offers up embarrassingly superficial views of human fantasy. This must have been really racy stuff back in the Me Decade, since the entire scenario is treated with a rather thick pair of "in the name of science" kid gloves, but when viewed alongside today's strange standards of porn Puritanism, it plays like a G-rated issue of Penthouse Forum come to life. As a matter of fact, the closing credits indicate a level of involvement from then hot men's magazine Gallery, which may indicate the kind of 'realism' being attempted. This may indeed be a true look at everyday people and their peculiar proclivities, but it doesn't mean it is interesting, or erotic. As a matter of fact, the biggest problem with Acting Out is that the kind of carnality the Disco generation gravitated toward would be with one exception downright dull by today's adventurous standards.
There really is nothing interesting about multiple partners or interracial romance. Yet right after the '60s, with the sexual revolution still stirring the perverted pot, this type of erogenous exploration was all the rage. People felt a need to get 'in touch' with their private parts, and the hippies were aging and looking for ways to rekindle the magic of the long ago love-ins. With the hypnotic pounding of the new found club funk filling the air, the notion of naughtiness was vanishing from vice. Soon, scientists and sociologists were drawing conclusions, studying the singles scene as the newly freed feminist still strived for Mr. Goodbar. Acting Out plays right into this concept, asserting itself as a dirty dissertation on the imaginary inklings that get people off. It wants to probe and prod, both physically and metaphysically. If you keep this in mind, you may actually enjoy its tacky time machine tenets. But if you are looking for deviant satisfaction, or some manner of softcore thrills, you'd better park your libido elsewhere. This movie is all about teasing, not pleasing, and the nudity is so knocked up in mangled montages and human imperfections that we never get any enjoyable T&A.
What we are stuck with then are the personalities of the people involved, and some of our participants need to visit a shrink, stat (or better yet, an FBI profiler). One rather fierce young man concocts an odd pilgrim era sequence where he tickles men's genitals with a feather. He eventually gets miffed when the actors hired to illustrate his desires won't go gay for his pleasure. His hissy fit is rather hilarious, as well as being mildly disturbing. Another disconcerting gent describes his complex rape fantasy, complete with the abduction of a bride-to-be, her eventual assault and drowning, and a twisted moment of transvestitism. But none of our mental men can match the "high school psychology counselor", whose fantasy involves Crisco, his fist, and a lady's waiting anus. While he plays it off as serious yet silly in his pre-peformance interview, he turns completely insane once the cameras roll. His macho domination bit, complete with uncomfortable looks, inappropriate violence, and demanding dialogue is freaky at first, then scary. He later apologizes for his actions, and his co-star calmly reassures the audience that she was nervous, but in control the whole time. While this may have a place in some Evil Angel gozno title, it seems wildly inappropriate for a supposedly serious movie.
That's another problem with the film as well. Since we cynically view anything dealing with onscreen sex through very jaundiced eyes (this is not hardcore though everything is implied), it is hard to figure out the overall message. Though the narrator keeps telling us that this is just an erotic expose, we tend to believe in the power of the all mighty dollar more than any altruistic approach. The use of the documentary style hopes to add a sense of realism, but with the oddly staged scenes, we realize that this is really just an excuse for amateur porn. The result is an awkward and off-putting production, one that lets routine ideas of Eros ('light bondage play' was passé, even in '78) and vile sense of voyeurism sully a potentially fascinating idea. And as this is the '70s, most of the mammaries are uninteresting, if pleasantly unaltered. Overall, there is a real Studio 54/Plato's Retreat vibe to the atmosphere. This is coked out carnality at its most meandering, pointless in approach and appearance. It may have value as a window into a long gone world of sexual subtlety and wide-eyed promiscuity, but for the most part, this is a waffling waste of time. The truth is Acting Out feels fake from the moment it makes its repetitive rationale known.
Framed in an oddly cropped picture that seems to suggest a second generation transfer, the semi-letterboxed 1.33:1 full frame image of Acting Out is decent, but not definitive. The colors are faded, with some really nauseating fleshtones, while the details are awash in a series of contrast issues. When filming inside, the sequences take on a very dark and shadowy undertone. Similarly, the outdoor moments expose grain and a great deal of age attributes. While it is watchable, it is also not recommendable. For all its claims about remastering and recreating, Troma offers a rather subpar visual with this title.
Since no great effort was made to hide the on-the-cheap production values of this film, the sound recording suffers horribly. It is tinny and flat, with occasional distortion and overmodulation. The Dolby Digital Stereo is adequate, but often aggravating. And let's not even mention the "somebody's girlfriend caterwauling" components of the theme song. Yeesh!
The main bonus features for this film center on Mr. Skin and his website devoted to celebrity nudity in the movies. First up in a 90 second intro for the movie that should really be avoided before viewing. Without much to comment on in the way of famous faces, our flesh expert spoils a few of the film's more memorable moments. Next is a 20 minute interview with Lloyd Kaufman that has nothing to do with Acting Out, and everything to do with Angelina Jolie and Janet Jackson's slipped nipple. More or less an infomercial for the baron of bodkin, Lloyd launches softballs, allowing Mr. Skin to ramble on about his obsession with naked stars. Some of their conversation is interesting, but after a while, we are sick of the constant shilling. Sadly, that's all there is to the rest of the added content. Troma makes sure you can't skip the trailer for Poultrygeist (it opens the DVD) and they even add a Lollilove infomercial for your fast-forwarding pleasure. In conjunction with the other corporate merchandising found on this disc, the extras are more about commerce than context.
While it's not completely awful, Acting Out is a tough title to recommend. It attempts to be Dr. Ruth in a world still agog from Dr. Rene Richards, and never once lets us know if what we are seeing is real, or just a really bad idea. It is definitely not for those looking for a dateless Saturday night substitute. If you have a curiosity about how the sexual liberation of the '60s and '70s became the smut-stained conundrum of a puzzled post-millennium, by all means give this tainted Troma treat a try. In this case, a Rent It fits the bill perfectly, as it allows for all judgments to pass through a far less financially taxing level of commitment. If this kind of un-groomed hotness gets your glands all engorged, by all means, make this movie a permanent part of your collection. There is indeed something incessantly novel about seeing hairy men and equally hirsute honeys sweating profusely. But if you've been brainwashed by the new level of lewdness in modern adult entertainment, where everything is about as plastic fantastic as money can make it, you will hate this excuse for enticement. Watching real people 'act out' their fantasies may have a provocative component, but it's nowhere to be found in this decidedly dry humping hoopla.