I like Joe Swanberg's movies. To be sure, I haven't seen all of them--the guy is unbelievably prolific--but over the last few months, both his recent Uncle Kent and the earlier Hannah Takes the Stairs made their way into my field of vision, and while they're very different films, both give the impression that Swanberg is one of the precious few filmmakers today who deals with sexuality properly; which is to say, he takes it seriously, but doesn't make a big deal out of it. Much of his work hinges on sex, but both the nudity (male and female) and couplings within his narratives are seen with a casualness that is downright refreshing. He assumes we're all grown-ups, and treats us as such.
Which is why his new film, Autoerotic, is such a disappointment; given the opportunity to craft a film specifically about adult sexuality, Swanberg and co-writer/co-director Adam Wingard have created a half-cocked (if you'll pardon the pun) series of dirty jokes and who-cares scenarios. The opening image--a close-up of an iPhone as a couple engages in spanking and foreplay--promises a heady brew of topics (voyeurism, intimacy, exhibitionism, technology), but it's the most provocative thing in the movie; they basically shoot their wad before the opening credits (okay, I'll put a stop to these, promise).
Swanberg and Wingard's script is constructed as a series of four short vignettes (true to his previous filmography, the picture clocks in at a lean 75 minutes). Each concerns a couple dealing with an intimacy issue or sexual hang-up, with dialogue that sounds less written than overheard and sex/make-out scenes that are admirably clumsy, lacking the customary phony choreography.
The first section concerns a man who is convinced that his penis is too small. He starts taking growth pills ordered from the Internet and becomes so confident of his new girth that he breaks up with his girlfriend, but overestimates the level of female interest in his new member. There are a couple of intriguing moments, but the segment ends on an odd, broad, and fairly stupid note, with a punch line out of one of those terrible '70s blackout sex comedies like Can I Do It... Till I Need Glasses?
The second section, about a girl who can't stop masturbating, has one entirely funny scene, in which she confides to a friend about all of her turn-ons (it's a long speech), and her friend suggests auto-erotic asphyxiation. "Might as well try it," she offers. "Yeah, couldn't hurt," the poor girl replies. That's all that segment's got though; it ends with little more than a filmed shrug.
Segment three concerns a pregnant woman who, try as she might, just can't have an orgasm with her boyfriend anymore. When a bisexual friend offers to help get the job done, the boyfriend misunderstands it as a threesome offer, leading to a funny moment as he tries to look cool and casual while his girlfriend goes to the door. Come to find out, that's not exactly what either of the women had in mind. There are some possibilities in the sequence, but it is ultimately too graphic for the low comedy vibe they're pushing to work--it ends up coming off as just kind of sleazy and gross, due not to the concept, but to the playing of it.
The final scene sports an intriguing premise--a girl goes to an old boyfriend to find out what become of all those sex videos they shot, and to get him to delete them. But as with the first section, the final joke doesn't work because we simply don't buy the turn of events; the filmmakers blow the reality that the naturalistic style so carefully constructs.
That style does have its limits, though; the low-fi look (the picture is shot on rather low-grade video) combined with the salacious subject matter gives it, at times, the feel of a Cinemax movie (or even a stolen sex tape). There are good scenes here and there, and the actors certainly get points for bravery. But for the most part, Autoerotic is little more than a series of sniggering, mediocre dirty jokes.