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Joe Swanberg, 'Sex Tape,' and When It's OK to Rewrite the Movie

Criticwire By Max O'Connell | Criticwire July 24, 2014 at 2:49PM

Review the movie they made, not the one you wanted them to make. But there's a way to use your rewrite idea constructively.
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Joe Swanberg at Fantastic Debates
Photo By Eric Kohn Joe Swanberg at Fantastic Debates

As the axiom goes, "Review the movie they made, not the one you wanted them to make." It's something that Roger Ebert sometimes took Gene Siskel to task for on "At the Movies," perhaps most hilariously in their bizarrely argumentative review of the long-forgotten children's comedy "Bogus." 

It's easy to sit at some crummy comedy, think it has a seed of a good idea in the premise, and rewrite the movie in your head. When that becomes the crux of a review, it starts to walk a thin line between criticism and solipsism. But there might be exceptions to that old rule.

Filmmaker Joe Swanberg, whose "Happy Christmas" is now in theaters, wrote about the new comedy "Sex Tape" at the Talkhouse. Swanberg gets into a number of logical fallacies in the film's premise, like how it lends itself more easily to an analogue era than a digital era. Or how Jason Segel's character giving out iPads without wiping the data makes no sense. Or how, when one of the iPad holders blackmails Segel and Cameron Diaz by threatening to upload the video to YouPorn, they simply convince the owner of the website not to upload the video, as if that were the only porn site online. 

Maybe these massive suspensions of disbelief would be more bearable if the movie were better, but to me they’re so egregious that we might as well be talking about characters who don’t know how a television set works. Or a radio. Or how to set the alarm on their bedside clock. But these are not Luddites. Cameron Diaz is a fucking mommy blogger. Her job is on the Internet. And Jason Segel buys so many iPads he can’t even remember all the people he has given old ones to. In this scenario, I haveto believe that one them knows how to quickly and easily remove the video from the other devices from the comfort of home. Or at the very least, one of these smart, competent adults would explore that option before engaging in a laundry list of stupid, illegal behavior.


Film critic Mike D'Angelo posted a comment noting that the filmmakers did make some attempts to justify some of these plot points, but even he says that the attempts are feeble (his own review for Las Vegas Weekly wasn't too kind). Swanberg's criticisms are pretty on point, but he goes into rewrite territory near the end of the piece.

I wish the makers of "Sex Tape" had decided instead to explore a couple that was dealing with the fact that their sex tape leaked, and wrapping their heads around the idea that their friends and family could watch it on the Internet. The film’s star, Cameron Diaz, could probably tell you all about it. Remember when that weird S&M video of 19-year-old Diaz surfaced in 2004? She has done her best to scrub all evidence of the thing from the world, but even as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood she couldn’t keep the photos and videos off the Internet, despite drawn-out legal battles and thousands of “cease and desist” emails. And that was 10 years ago! How can I, in the present, derive any enjoyment from watching that same woman break into a warehouse under the assumption that smashing a server with a baseball bat will solve her problem?


Sex Tape

That's one of Swanberg's proposed ideas, along with a wilder idea of Diaz and Segel's friends seeing the recording, getting inspired to make their own sex tapes, and the "the sheer number of sex tapes creates a world in which nobody can ever again be shamed for having and enjoying sex." Both versions arguably sound better than the movie that was made, but my initial reaction to Swanberg's ideas were "but that's not the movie that they wanted to make." The film is meant to be a broad, raucous sex comedy, isn't it? So isn't it better to just leave it at the film's failure at its own low ambitions?

Upon rereading the piece, however, Swanberg's suggestions don't seem all that removed from the field the film is working in. In fact, the second one in particular is more in tune with the strengths of the genre in the first place, rather than the sex-negative message of the film that was made. And Swanberg devotes plenty of space — roughly two-thirds of the piece — to not only taking the film on its own terms, but lamenting that it looked like the filmmakers were forcing themselves to jump through hoops to justify a MacGuffin-driven plot that just doesn't gel in the digital age.

Plus, when the movie itself has a scene (in which pals Ellie Kemper and Rob Corddry are a bit too curious about the contents of the tape) that points directly to a better movie just around the corner, it's hard not to expound upon that. Even then, Swanberg's rewrites aren't the thesis, or even the central thread of their given paragraphs. The first is really just a transition to how one of the actors should know that the film's premise is impossible, while the second mostly serves to prove a point that "Sex Tape" is an incredibly sex-negative film, to the point of being reactionary. Let this be an example of how to channel rewrite ideas the right way: Make sure you're making a point about the movie that was made, the way it was made.

This article is related to: Joe Swanberg, Sex Tape


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