Who should be more embarrassed: the husband and wife who accidentally release a homemade porn video in “Sex Tape,” or the studio that’s willfully distributing “Sex Tape”? Basically an extended marital-therapy session wrapped in an iPad commercial, this surprisingly bland Cameron Diaz-Jason Segel vehicle has a marketably racy premise but takes it in a stilted, unfunny direction that leaves both actors flailing about, sort of like the translucent red double-ended dildo that gets whipped out in an especially sad fit of comic desperation. Interesting mainly as a sign of how thoroughly smut, Apple products and smut viewable on Apple products have seeped into contemporary life, Sony’s July 18 release might attract audiences starved for a decent R-rated summer comedy following recent hits “Neighbors” and “22 Jump Street,” but seems unlikely to show anywhere near the same box office stamina.
In one of the more unorthodox post-Muppets-movie career moves in Hollywood history, regular writing partners Segel and Nicholas Stoller (teaming with scribe Kate Angelo, who is credited with the story) have attempted a moderately risque adult laffer that retains some of the sweetness and spark of their Judd Apatow-produced collaborations, such as “The Five-Year Engagement” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” As directed by Jake Kasdan, “Sex Tape” also bears a superficial resemblance to the Stoller-helmed “Neighbors,” a much sharper comedy about a couple seeking naughty relief from their boring domestic routine.
It wasn’t always thus for Annie (Diaz) and Jay (Segel), who, as seen in a belabored opening montage, used to be dynamite in the sack, doing the deed whenever and wherever they liked — in the bedroom, the shower, the car, public parks, Mexican restaurants, etc. Ten years later, they’re married with two children (Sebastian Hedges Thomas, Giselle Eisenberg), a two-story West L.A. home and busy professional lives — she’s a mommy blogger, he works in radio — leaving them little time for intimacy. When they do finally get an evening all to themselves, dropping the kids off with Grandma (a sweet Nancy Lenehan), they have an unusually hard time getting into the mood, leading Annie to suggest they spice things up by starring in their own X-rated video.
Shot on Jay’s new iPad — which, as the characters pause to advertise more than once, comes equipped with an ultra-high-def camera — the resulting three-hour amateur epic shows (or rather, suggests) Annie and Jay demonstrating every position in their well-thumbed copy of “The Joy of Sex.” But rather than listening to Annie and immediately deleting the video afterward, Jay accidentally uploads it to the cloud — where, thanks to an unpredictable new syncing app, it’s automatically downloaded onto several iPads he gave to friends and family as gifts. And so, with the help of their friends Robby (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Ellie Kemper), whose own prurient interest in the video’s contents becomes something of a running gag, Annie and Jay must track down the tainted tablets and erase the evidence before anyone else views it — especially Hank Rosenbaum (Rob Lowe), the family-values-minded CEO whose company is considering acquiring Annie’s blog.
Despite the apparent unlikelihood of such a gaffe actually happening, on paper it sounds like fairly relevant material for our sex-obsessed, technologically paranoid digital era — a comedy geared toward an audience presumably familiar with the ins and outs of Internet porn, and well aware that their most sensitive personal data could be one stray click away from public exposure. In the execution, however, “Sex Tape” is an unaccountable drag — strained, toothless and far too tame to achieve the sort of outrageous, raunchy-titillating effect it’s aiming for. This is, in effect, an R-rated movie with a coy PG-13 sensibility, which can be chalked up in part to the fairly inexplicit sex scenes — a few moments of self-consciously casual rear nudity aside, there’s nothing here to shock those who saw the much edgier “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” or Segel’s full-frontal displays in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” But that disinterest in pushing the visual envelope matters far less than the movie’s failure to fully exploit the comedic or dramatic potential of its material.
Rather than, say, forcing the two leads to confront the horrifying, humiliating consequences of their decision, the script sends them on an inane, all-night mission to keep the video from going viral, during which they are beset by attack dogs, pre-adolescent sociopaths and surprisingly benign porn-world denizens. (As played by an unbilled actor in an amusing cameo, the owner of YouPorn turns out to be, whaddya know, a pretty sweet guy.) When it’s not stuck in farce mode, the movie is a formulaic reconciliation drama in which Annie and Jay must reaffirm their love and address the underlying intimacy issues that led them to make a sex tape in the first place. Diaz and Segel, who made such a pleasingly disreputable pair in Kasdan’s underrated “Bad Teacher,” are nice enough company as always. But in the absence of any real characters to play, they seem weirdly detached from every word and gesture, like half-hearted improv artists trying to wring a few decent sketches from the words “sex tape.”
The movie’s lengthy comic centerpiece finds Annie and Jay dropping by Hank’s Brentwood mansion, and if anyone here deserves a prize for being a good sport, it’s surely Lowe, whose entire performance is a not-so-veiled reference to the famous leaked video that almost derailed his career in the late ’80s. His tongue planted perhaps a bit too firmly in cheek, Lowe is all smiles and positive energy in the role of a straight-laced, cardigan-wearing family man who, in his downtime, likes to listen to Slayer and snort lines of cocaine. Jabbing at everything from the actor’s past substance abuse to the infamous Snow White Oscars debacle, it’s a mightily self-deprecating turn — and if it’s not exactly a laugh riot, it affords one of the few moments in “Sex Tape” where you sense that someone onscreen is actually having a good time.