Sex Tape tries. It really does. It has a gangbusters opening sequence chronicling how Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) met in college and fell in love, all the while fucking like rabbits. They do it in every conceivable position and in every conceivable local, including right under a tree on the campus quad while discreetly clothed. The sequence is both ribald and observant about a lot of the details of sexual infatuation that movies often leave out, from the joyous juvenility of it (“Your butt was right there, I had no choice.”) to its sheer ubiquity (“Erections all the time.”) Diaz and Segel hurl themselves into these early moments, and the way the momentum subtly and organically shifts into a nervous-but-stand-up Jay telling Annie’s parents – whom he’s just met – that he’s in love with their daughter and intends to marry her is genuinely moving.
All this is narrated from the blog of a now-adult Annie, as she reminices on her and Jay’s path into married suburban parenthood. It’s excellent scene setting, because of course now Annie is grappling with the question, “Where did all the sex go?” Jay is now a successful music distributor (or musician, or producer, or something like that), and Annie is on the verge of selling her blog to a parenting products company, fronted by the gruesomely cheerful corporate goon Hank (Rob Lowe). The couple has two young children, and they’ve been reduced to schedule obligatory bouts of sex once a month (or less often) in between the work and the taking of the children to school and all that.
So when Annie seals the deal for her blog, she decides it’s time to celebrate. She packs the kids off to her parents, puts on some roller-skates and the skimpiest 80s-era beach outfit she can find, and waits for Jay to come home. He is understandably thrilled by this development when he arrives – though also shocked nearly to the point of inexpressibility – and the couple promptly falls into bed.
Only to discover, to their horror, that even when they want to do it they don’t seem to be any good at sex anymore.
That’s when the fun starts. In an act of creative desperation, Annie, ever the instigator, suggests they make a sex tape. So they set up the iPad camera in the den, throw down a love nest of cushions and blankets on the floor, knock back some shots of tequila, reference a book of sex positions, and go to town. And it works – beautifully. Except that a few days later at a neighborhood party, Jay gets an anonymous text: “Loved your sex tape.” It turns out that as part of the promotion for Jay’s job, he’s handed out iPads to friends and family with a mix of music already loaded up. And thanks to an oversight on his part, the sex tap made it into the mix.
This, unfortunately, is also where the script as penned by Segel, Kate Angelo, and Nicholas Stoller goes off the rails. The practical rules of Jay and Annie’s dilemma is never really laid down: the mailman has one of the offending iPads, as do Hank, Annie’s parents, their friends Robby (Rob Cordry) and Tess (Ellie Kemper)… and maybe some other people? It’s never really clear. A fun and episodic scavenger hunt through Los Angeles could’ve ensued here, maybe even something reminiscent of The Big Lebowski’s parody-noir. Instead, Sex Tape gets bogged down in an extended romp through Hank’s massive mansion just to find his iPad, sapping the plot of all narrative momentum. Last minute fixes deal with a lot of the iPads, in developments that feel like the writers slapped the second-half of the plot together in a last minute rush. Then Sex Tape tries to resuscitate itself with a last-minute blackmail plot twist (I can’t decide if the identity of the blackmailer is hilarious or absurd), but by then the damage has been done.
Director Jake Kasdan doesn’t really make himself known in a positive or negative way. Segel and Diaz are amiable and enjoyable, and Diaz in particular proves once again that she is an actress with superb comedic chops. Her timing is perfect, and she swings expertly between hurt exasperation over the iPad fiasco and a willingness to plum the real reasons behind her own anger.
Annie and Jay fight, but it’s never poisonous. This is a story about fundamentally good people in a fundamentally healthy marriage, who happen to have hit a few bumps most any married couple will encounter in their time together. To its credit, Sex Tape respects its audience enough to believe that premise alone will engage them, without having to up the stakes to uber-dramatic American-Beauty-esque ennui. It’s an earnest attempt to integrate the mercurial, upending, hair-brained aspects of the human sexual impulse with loving commitment and marriage, and it sports an admirable sexual humanism. (“Everyone has an eleven-inch double-sided dildo in their nightstand.” “That’s a beautiful metaphor, honey.”) The film even earns back some good will with a Jack Black cameo as the most unlikely voice of thematic moral statement ever.
It’s just that, at the nuts-and-bolts level of storytelling, the script can’t hack it.