Saturday, July 26, 2014

DOES SEX STILL SELL IN HOLLYWOOD?

The new teaser trailer for the movie version of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is out and it’s little more than a tease (http://bit.ly/1lBvBAh). Granted, it’s just a trailer, but it looks a lot like NINE ½ WEEKS. It’s got a similar sadomasochistic theme, the same color palate of blacks and cool grays that 1985 movie employed, as well as its penchant for overly art directed interiors. Is it a remake or reboot?


The trailer is filled with glossy images but it shows precious little of the relationship between Anastasia and Christian, other than smoldering looks. Perhaps the film will truly deliver, but knowing how Hollywood is these days, I worry that it will refrain from being a true examination of a kinky and troubling relationship, and opt for showing off Christian’s opulent office, his designer duds, and his chiseled abs.

Despite sex everywhere in our culture, and pornography becoming more and more mainstream, including in the top 10 bestseller list from hence FIFTY SHADES OF GREY came, Tinsel Town seems reluctant to truly delve into films that embrace the subject of adult sexuality. Where are today’s studio films on par with those like BODY HEAT (1981), THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988), DAMAGE (1992), or any of the many sophisticated sex comedies that Blake Edwards used to make? Those films were mature and challenging examinations of how men and women related to each other over sex, but there are very few that even attempt such topics today. Doesn’t sex sell anymore at the box office?


Sure, teen comedies have succeeded with the subject of sex in the movies, but why hasn't there been more fare aimed at an audience a bit older? THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (2005) and KNOCKED UP (2007) managed to include some maturity in their sexual  storylines, but their senses of humor were still more 'frat boy' than Preston Sturges. Can't sex comedies be sophisticated anymore?

Sex is everywhere online, so maybe Cineplexes want to tread elsewhere. Yet, television dives in with large themes of sex examined on series such as MASTERS OF SEX, SHAMELESS and CALIFORNICATION. Has the small screen raised the bar so high that the big screen won’t even bother?

Perhaps part of the problem is due to more and more movies being aimed at the international box office. That’s why there are so many action/adventure films getting greenlit, since dialogue and jokes don’t always translate as easily overseas. And there are some countries that censor more explicitly sexual material too, so that could be a deterrent.

But if Hollywood can make explicit teen/college sex comedies like AMERICAN PIE (1999) or this year’s NEIGHBORS, even with international censorship issues, then why can’t the studios make more films with serious sexual themes, even more sophisticated sex comedies? Is there no one in Hollywood who dares pick up the Blake Edwards mantle?


SEX TAPE had a great opportunity to shine in such a way, what with its story of a married couple in their 40’s dealing with their sexuality, but it failed to be as funny or sexy as it should’ve been. Stars Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel seemed to be game, but both have shown more comedic flair and yes, nudity elsewhere.

Even at the end, when the sex tape of the title is shown, it’s not very adult. Instead, it seems to be more of what a high school virgin would imagine sex is what with its silly acrobatics and laughable positions. Are we to believe that the Diaz and Segel characters would be that puerile about sexuality in their 40’s? It’s depressing that the filmmakers thought such lowbrow comedy like that was worth our while. The language of the movie was as blue as possible, but the sex presented was colored in crayon. 

Nancy Meyers comes closest to doing the sort of adult rom-com’s with a sex theme as anyone these days with sophisticated fare like SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE (2005) and IT’S COMPLICATED (2009), but her leads in both were edging close to sixty or beyond. It would be interesting for her to do something in the Edwards vein with a slightly younger cast, or a willingness to broaden her comedy appeal beyond the ‘chick flick’ themes. Could a woman be the next Blake Edwards, Meyers or otherwise? Amy Schumer perhaps?
Blake Edwards with his honorary Oscar in 2004.
Edwards truly found a brilliant niche in the latter half of his career writing and directing such sexy romps like 10 (1979), S.O.B. (1981), and VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982). In 10, the career of a  songwriter (Dudley Moore) is derailed by his midlife crisis as he risks life, limb and libido to chase after a fantasy girl (Bo Derek). In VICTOR/VICTORIA, Edwards managed to wring belly laughs and pathos out of his examination of sex, identity and homosexuality with Julie Andrews and James Garner. And Edwards put it all to song too!

And in his movie satire S.O.B., Edwards' sendup of Hollywood skullduggery, desperate producer (Richard Mulligan) reworks his G-rated musical bomb into an X-rated extravaganza. Edwards knew that the lurid was everywhere and becoming more and more mainstream. That’s still true today, but most Hollywood filmmakers rarely broach truly adult sexuality as a subject, be it in a comedy or otherwise.
Megan Fox
Perhaps another reason that movies don’t do sex much anymore is that audiences barely realize what they're missing. With movie studios' insatiable need to appeal to younger and younger audiences, the intelligence of filmgoers seems to have lowered as much as their expectations. So many dutifully traipse out every weekend to the latest $200 million action picture because they're told to and that's all there is opening. It's become like a fast food diet with nothing for a more sophisticated palate. Sure, a burger is great now and then, but sometimes a little filet mignon would be nice too. 

Don't believe it? Well, look at how Megan Fox failed to become a true sex symbol of the cinema due to her big claim to fame being a couple of kids movies. TRANSFORMERS (2007) was hardly the right recipe for a ripely sensual woman to become the next Marilyn Monroe or Raquel Welch. Fox's sex appeal was neutered to appeal to 9-year-olds before she ever got a chance to strut her stuff in something more adult. 

Interestingly, other than this summer’s TRANSFORMERS sequel (sans the foxy Ms. Fox), box office receipts are way down, and fewer adults are going to see such tent-pole pictures as in previous years. Adults went in droves to see THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL this past spring, but nothing has matched their enthusiasm since.

VOD has captured some adult audiences with films with a mature sex theme, like Lars Von Trier’s two parts of NYMPHOMANIAC this year, but such art-house films are hardly mainstream studio fare. Last year’s BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR was a marvelous examination of a young woman’s sexuality but it too was an art-house film. It also got a limited release. And it was French.
Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
In those kinds of movies, sex is shown as an integral part of adult life, even if sometimes it isn’t all about love and marriage. Such films show more than just glimpses of flesh and lovemaking. They show how people relate to each other through sex, or use sex for power or control. But no matter, the scenes aren’t truncated, bathed in shadow, or insinuated. They’re asking us to watch, forcing us to look, inviting us to truly see how their characters are in such specific and intimate moments. Isn’t that sort of physicality more fascinating than another reboot of muscle-bound HERCULES? It should be for an adult audience or a movie fan that wants more from cinema.


And there is proof that audiences will find more adult offerings if presented with such choices. Adults over 40 made Woody Allen’s last two movies (MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and BLUE JASMINE) into $100 million dollar hits. Adult action/adventure pictures like SNOWPIERCER are setting VOD records. Even documentaries like the Roger Ebert bio LIFE ITSELF are bringing scores and scores of adult audiences into the theaters.  Why can’t sex?


With good returns like that, it would seem that there is great potential for adult comedies and intimate dramas to break through and make a mint. Perhaps Hollywood just needs a good shot of Cialis. Where’s Megan Fox when you need her? Just leave the robots at home, please.

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