Reaching deep into the well of post-modernism, Sex Sells is a
mocumocumentary, which I suppose to be the right word for a film which is
a comedy about the making of a mocumentary. Or maybe it just is a
mocumentary which occasionally breeches the fourth wall. It doesn't matter
much, because at its core it is really a heartfelt soap opera about normal
people in an abnormal business, although the drama is filtered through a
lens of comedy, and sometimes even absurdity.
We find out that Chuck Steak is the real name of one of the adult film world's most
prolific directors. His first name is Charles, and
his Slavic last name is pronounced "stee-ak." He's a bright and savvy guy,
knows his Shakespeare, and is pretty much of a father figure to his
repertory cast of porn stars. He's at that point in his life where he's ready to abandon porn and move on to
other endeavors, so in his final film, "Touché," he hopes to go out with a
bang, or rather a record number of bangs, by filming the largest orgy in
the history of porn. The creation of Chuck's swan song is being documented
or maybe mocumented by a naive young filmmaker named Bernard Hyman.
You can tell from that brief description that Sex Sells was never
intended to be a 3000-theater blockbuster, but the summary belies the fact
that it is a surprisingly mainstream movie. The characters are decent
people. The director is an avuncular and unthreatening person who has a
businesslike attitude toward his filmmaking, and could well be Scorsese
except that when he's discussing lighting his primary concern is the proper
illumination of labia. There is nothing lascivious about his approach, and
he takes the same efficient, no-nonsense, matter-of-fact tone on all
matters, whether discussing where to get lunch or who will sodomize whom
in the big orgy. If you didn't know he ran an porno film studio, you could
easily mistake him for a beloved high school football coach, or a friendly
manufacturer's rep pitching his line to Wal-Mart. The stars of the porn film
are also real people with a realistic variety of attitudes. The story
centers around one
female member of the cast who is only hanging around to get acquainted with
her mother, a jaded porn veteran (Priscilla Barnes of Three's Company
fame) who is unaware that her co-star is the daughter she had to give up a
quarter of a century earlier.
The weakness of the film is that is takes an inconsistent tone and
attitude toward its subject matter.
At times it is a scathing satire of the porn business which
incorporates exceptionally accurate details to portray the industry, in
the manner of Boogie Nights.
At other times it is over-the-top absurdist comedy. For example, the
film's male star (Adrien Zmed of T.J. Hooker fame) has a 42-inch penis
which can become erect upon command, and one of the women at the porn
film audition recites a Shakespearean soliloquy and expects to get a
part without removing her clothing.
At still other times it brings real human interaction to the
forefront and concentrates on a budding love story as well as the
woman's search for a connection with her long-lost mother. A special nod
to Priscilla Barnes. Her character is too old to be in porn,
having been born in 1960, but Priscilla herself was actually born in
1955. Not many 50-year-old actresses would have been willing to play
this part, and of those willing, perhaps none would have looked as good
in the buff.
By moving too frequently back and forth between those three modes, the
film fails to be really good at any of them. At times it seems to be
saying "Look, we can be incisive and true-to-life," but then pulls back
from reality and starts to show the star knocking things over with his
personal yard stick. To be honest, those cheap laughs sometimes work quite
well, but they reduce the impact of the realism in other scenes, as if to
say, "Gotcha. Guess what? You're not supposed to take any of the other
stuff seriously either." After seeing the absurd elements, I felt like a
sucker for buying into the storyline, because I figured the author
also meant the plot twists to be satirical. That is a shame in many ways, because the
film presents quite an interesting look at the adult film industry when it
sticks close to reality, and some of the actors are quite capable. And the
soap opera is reasonably engaging with a few unexpected twists. The writer
probably would have been better off passing up the cheap laughs.
Despite all the odd tone shifts, the film kept me involved in the story
about half of the time, and in the other half it still managed to kept me
watching because there was something funny or raunchy or otherwise interesting
going on. Since I never touched the fast-forward button, the film passes
my basic hurdle for a qualified recommendation.
Oh, to tell you the truth, I kinda liked it. If only I knew which
parts I was supposed to believe.
A film clip of the audition for
the big porn film.
A compilation film clip of
Priscilla Barnes's big scene in the film-within-the-film. (She plays
an android with a Eastern European accent. It's not really supposed to make sense.)
Some samples of Barnes's nudity: