'Autoerotic'

Watching four pasty white couples fumble and grope their way through various unscripted bedroom scenarios will no doubt drive enough VOD interest to justify this vaguely titillating IFC Midnight acquisition.

After making a name for himself with a series of narcissistic personal projects (including “Kissing on the Mouth,” which featured a scene of him masturbating in the shower), mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg goes and co-directs a film called “Autoerotic” that — surprise! — demonstrates a sensitivity one would hardly expect from its title or its concept. Meanwhile, the superficial sex appeal of watching four pasty white couples fumble and grope their way through various unscripted bedroom scenarios will no doubt drive enough VOD interest to justify this vaguely titillating IFC Midnight acquisition, which also opens briefly in New York and Los Angeles.

A collaboration with director Adam Wingard (“Pop Skull”) that follows Swanberg’s usual loosey-goosey, improv-driven style, “Autoerotic” presents four vignettes about frustrated lovers who resort to self-gratification to get their kicks. Yet the unexpectedly mature moral of each story is that sex would be more fun if they could only put their partners first. Both helmers also appear in the film, which, combined with an opening scene in which Wingard makes a home spanking video on his iPhone, gives the entire low-budget operation a one-step-this-side-of-amateur feel.

The first chapter introduces a young man (Lane Hughes) bummed that his penis isn’t big enough to satisfy his otherwise supportive g.f. (Amy Seimetz). Exasperated, the guy researches solutions online and sends away for pills that deliver instant results, quickly demonstrating that it wasn’t his g.f. he was looking to satisfy. Newly endowed, he dumps her and upgrades to someone better, triggering a weak twist that would satisfy neither horror nor comedy fans.

Most of the film unfolds in that same bizarre tonal space, wedged uncomfortably between the two genres. Swanberg and Kate Lyn Sheil share an episode in which a young lady obsessed with finding the perfect orgasm resorts to asphyxiating herself with a belt, when all she really needs is an extra hand. Swanberg’s real-life — and really pregnant — wife, Kris, plays a similarly unfulfilled woman in the next segment, only here, her onscreen husband (Frank V. Ross) learns a few tricks by watching a stranger try things he’d never considered.

Though out of sync with the rest of the cast, Ross contributes the film’s one truly comedic performance, channeling a nervous energy reminiscent of early-career Woody Allen as the jealous lover, peeking around doors and prepping for what he misunderstands to be a threesome. Otherwise, the acting style is so blase as to make the material seem boring — except perhaps for Wingard’s emotionally twisted closing chapter.

When it comes to sex movies, there’s hardcore, softcore and mumblecore, and “Autoerotic” demonstrates that the latter is only good insofar as auds care to watch apathetic twentysomethings awkwardly rediscover the bedroom dynamics mankind had millennia to figure out before the invention of the digital videocamera. Even so, the revelation that someone else matters, along with slightly more attention paid to framing and aesthetics, feels like progress for Swanberg and should earn Wingard his widest exposure to date.

Autoerotic

Production

An IFC Films release of a Swanberry production. Produced by Joe Swanberg. Executive producer, Kent Osborne. Directed by Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg. Screenplay, Wingard, Swanberg, Simon Barrett.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Wingard, Chris Hilleke; music, Lane Hughes; digital effects, David Lowery. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, July 18, 2011. Running time: 73 MIN.

With

Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, Joe Swanberg, Lane Hughes, Frank V. Ross, Kris Swanberg, Josephine Decker, Rosemary Plain, Adam Wingard, Megan Mercier, Ti West, Brendan Kelly.
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