Lonely urbanites take sex into their own hands

Autoerotic

on July 25, 2011 by Mark Keizer
Print

Autoerotic is a step backwards for writer/director Joe Swanberg. The movie is a bit of a departure for the mumblecore pioneer, one that does not play to his strengths. It's darker than previous efforts, no doubt thanks to the addition of horror-minded Adam Wingard as co-director. If Wingard's participation means that Swanberg is in the mood to explore the more unspoken, fetishistic side of sex, that's intriguing. But in making a film comprised of four vignettes connected only by thematic intent, we're denied the pleasures of watching relatable characters navigate their way through recognizably modern relationship issues. Some of the director's staples remain, like the no-budget look, frank dialogue and naturalistic flow of individual scenes. Otherwise, this feels like a collection of one-note ideas that Swanberg indulges in to minimal lasting effect. Poor word of mouth around the indie community will greatly dampen theatrical performance, although its short length and numerous displays of skin are a good fit for VOD.

Wingard's sensibilities cast a prurient pall over Autoerotic, as if George Romero's Creepshow were refashioned as a soft-core porno anthology. All four shorts tackle the search for sexual pleasure and how that search sometimes ends with putting your hand down your own pants. With four sets of unrelated, mostly unnamed Chicago-area urbanites approaching the issue from four different directions, Swanberg obviously has thoughts on the subject. If only he explored his characters as much as his characters explore themselves. The director is honest enough to show little faith in his own gender. The men here are, for the most part, duplicitous and shameless in satisfying their primal need for sexual release. The guys who end their stories alone deserve to be alone. The ones who accommodate their lovers deserve their happy ending (literally and dramatically). The first story involves a man so humiliated by his tiny member that he buys penis enlargement pills and then dumps his girlfriend for the rewards that surely await the man with an enormous johnson. In the concluding short, a woman asks her scummy ex-boyfriend to erase videos of them having sex, a request he'll only honor if she grants him a rather crude favor. Both these stories feature a blackout ending, a reach for shock guffaws more notable for the fact that Swanberg is going to such unnatural lengths for a laugh. Autoerotic is more sympathetic to the women. In the film's best story, a mousy redhead has been satisfying her boyfriend's fetish to the exclusion of her own pleasure, so she begins masturbating constantly. This vignette achieves a combination of humor and humanity without the nasty pale of some of the other stories. Its conclusion is the most hopeful as the woman discovers a fetish to call her own, one her boyfriend can willingly participate in.

Visually, Autoerotic adds creepy notes to the standard aesthetics of a Swanberg production. The unpolished look of digital photography is still present, giving the film an intimate feel that serves all the stories, especially the tale of a pregnant woman (played by Swanberg's wife) unable to achieve orgasm and the unusual solution that excites her accommodating husband. Swanberg and Wingard also shoot characters gazing at themselves in mirrors and interacting in sparse environments to accentuate the loneliness that leads to the desire for self-gratification. Swanberg, co-writing with Wingard and Simon Barrett, put their characters in positions (moral and sexual) that are way too sensitive for any major studio. The uninhibited performers orgasm and get naked with abandon. Dialogue is realistic, bold and honest. All those awkward pauses Swanberg (Alexander the Last, Hannah Takes the Stairs) previously utilized to convey naturalism come in handy, like when the frigid mom-to-be sheepishly acknowledges that her issues also affect her husband. "It's like he's masturbating inside of me," she regrets. What's disappointing, and what effectively sinks Autoerotic, is how the filmmakers derive such satisfaction from its broad strokes and incongruous stabs at comedy.

At their best, Swanberg's films are not about problems or solutions; they're about the men and women living between the problem and the solution. But because this is a series of shorts, we lose the in-between. Collectively, we're told that the self-pleasuring impulse has its own triggers and justifications independent of the relationship status or personal happiness of the practitioner. Individually, the exploration of these issues has been replaced with something formal, purposeful and almost cold. It's an aspect of Swanberg's work we haven't experienced before. He's not good at it and hopefully he'll realize it before he makes another film like Autoerotic.

Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Amy Seimetz, Lane Hughes, Kris Swanberg, Ti West
Directors: Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard
Screenwriters: Simon Barrett, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard
Producers: Joe Swanberg
Genre: Drama
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 72 min.
Release date: July 22 NY

 

Tags: Kate Lyn Sheil, Amy Seimetz, Lane Hughes, Kris Swanberg, Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett
Print

read all Reviews »


1 Comment

What do you think?