Rating:A side-effect of the modern trend of making titles as concise and blunt as possible is that so often these days, you can glean everything you need just from the one or two words above the marquee. And that’s not even factoring in a trailer as thuddingly obvious as the one that promoted Sex Tape, a two-minute ad that may as well have had opening and ending credits for how much it seemed to give away.
That impression is only confirmed by the film proper, which introduces couple Jay (Jason Segel) and Annie (Cameron Diaz) with such a rushed, cut-up montage of youthful sex and married stagnation that one could be forgiven for thinking the theater had mistakenly just aired the preview again instead of the feature presentation. The film sketches marital tedium writ large, with a few scenes of the couple’s kids needing attention as a perfunctory illustration of how passion fades in the face of consistency and responsibility. Where the film sets itself apart is in the scenes where the couple comes up with the idea to film themselves having sex in an attempt to rekindle the fire. The ploy succeeds, but as a post-coital Annie sleepily demands that Jay delete the video from his iPad before anyone can see it, only a rube would fail to guess where things go from there.
For all the confrontational immediacy of the title, Sex Tape never truly engages with the implications of the tape’s digital dissemination. For one thing, all the fear over the possibility of everyone in Jay and Annie’s lives seeing the tape lacks bite given how few characters exist even in the film’s periphery. A late-stage threat by one tape recipient to upload the video to a free porn site even fails to connect because judging from who appears in the frame, the couple only know about 12 people. Likewise, the manner in which the tape is visible to anyone, a byproduct of Jay handing out old iPads as casual gifts and synching them to provide playlists to his friends, is so absurdly divorced from reality that it would stand as the film’s most glaring example of Hollywood’s isolation from people’s actual lives were it not for the even stranger plot point of Annie’s mommy blog, about the travails of raising children and losing opportunities for sex with her partner, somehow attracting a lucrative partnership offer with a toy corporation.
In terms of its pleasures, the film moves in an almost perfect parabola, peaking near the middle when Jay and Annie find a way into the house of Hank (Rob Lowe), the CEO of the toy company that wants to purchase Annie’s blog. Having given Hank one of Jay’s iPads, Annie is determined to retrieve the device before her new boss, who enforces strict image rules to preserve the company’s brand, can see it. Once the couple get inside and Annie distracts Hank, however, the post-”Parks and Recreation” Lowe kicks into manic, gleeful comic gear. Showing off surreal paintings of his face superimposed onto iconic Disney characters and putting on Slayer for mood music, Hank then brings out lines of cocaine and shows off bizarre tattoos. Lowe plays the character like the perpetually cheery Chris Traeger morphing into his own Dorian Gray portrait, his goofy grin charged with insistent megalomania. Interspersed with scenes of Jay evading a guard dog—a cliché made funny by the weirdness of its application—the sequence is one of the comic highlights of the year.
Yet the sequence’s freewheeling energy and brazen jokes only exacerbate the feeling that everything around it is deflated and bizarrely lacking in tension. A conflict with a blackmailer goes nowhere, and the film ponderously hits its emotional notes in an effort to prove that, yes, married couples can still be in love and find each other sexy. But that’s really only news to the characters in Hollywood films, the same ones who don’t know that men and women can be friends or that man-children don’t make winsome partners. A late appearance by Jack Black as a vulgar but curiously sage porn king offers a final glimmer of humor, but Sex Tape never capitalizes on its wildest, most inexplicable moments. Befitting its carefully concealed genitalia, the film plays an explicit subject fatally coy.