-I was admittedly extremely nervous about the casting when the list was first released. It was all over the place, and I’ve always struggled with Own Wilson in roles outside of Wes Anderson films, where he, more often than not, has co-written the script with Wes. Even when he hasn’t, Anderson seems to have Wilson’s unique voice emblazoned in his head and always writes fitting roles for his old college buddy. But nerves aside*, I had been excited for this film since I heard the basic time-travelling premise. Not only did Allen deliver on my excitement, he far exceeded it, giving us his best film since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, which is certainly in my top five Woody Allen films.
-The more I think about the film’s thesis (that everyone is actually born in the right decade, whether they want to admit it or not), the more I agree with it. Much like Gil, I’ve always wished I was born in a different time, though what for him was Paris in the 20s, is for me Hollywood in the late 30s/early 40s. But there are problems inherent in that, just like there are problems inherent with the Parisian 20s for Gil. What about the depression? What about the war? What about having to wait 20, 30, 40 years to see my favorite films again? What if I ran into John Ford or Charlie Chaplin? I’ve met some people I idolize in modern times, and Don Mattingly and Jimmy Smits were really the only ones that weren’t in some way a let down. John Ford would certainly be a let down — he was a notorious asshole. I wouldn’t want that to ruin The Informant or How Green Was My Valley for me, which it likely would. But that’s just rambling. What about the lack of air conditioning? What about no Woody Allen?
-All that said, Corey Stoll’s portrayal of Ernest Hemingway absolutely steals the movie. If you’re familiar with Hemingway that is. He talks in long, rambling, Hemingwayesque passages and constantly looks for someone to box with. It’s delicious, but I was the only one in the theater laughing at some of it.
*Woody Allen films tend to make me nervous because I hold him in such high reverence that I don’t want him to fail — I never want to see him make anything as bad as Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Anything Else again — which is probably too slanted a view to go into a film with, but that’s just how my brain has processed it. It doesn’t affect my view of his films really, except that many I’m a little more disappointed when expectations are not met, as they weren’t really met with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger or Whatever Works.
While this film’s co-director Adam Wingard is mostly an unknown quantity in this equation, partner in crime Joe Swanberg — the indie director of collaborative efforts Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends — is no stranger to sex or controversy, both of which are courted nimbly in Autoerotic, a four-part omnibus film that takes a penetrating and at times unexpected look at exactly the topic the film is titled after.
It’s not necessarily an aim to court controversy by being explicit, though. “I am trying to document the humans around me, the same way a nature show would document elephants or lions, and a big part of our lives is spent thinking about sex, trying to have sex, or having sex,” Swanberg told me during a Hannah-era interview. “For me it’s obvious that sex would have a big role in the films.”
But while Hannah, Weekends, and Alexander the Last have been more straightforward relationship dramas with sex in them, Autoerotic returns to the thematic ground forged in the pre-Hannah films, LOL and Kissing on the Mouth, which you could say were films about sex with relationships in them. He returns to that ground a much wiser, more technically proficient director and collaborator, but one who has remained as starkly honest and continued to be able to get actors to trust him wholly, without reservation or worry about embarrassment. It’s a trust explicitly needed in the first two segments — the first, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde story about a man addicted to penis enlargement pills; the second, about a girl who is turned on by a stiff breeze and delves into the dangerous area of autoerotic asphyxiation.
The trust is thanks in no small part to his wife, Kris Swanberg, who is perhaps more vulnerable in the third segment — about a sexually unfulfilled pregnant woman who lets a girlfriend try and work out what her husband can’t achieve — than anyone else in any of Swanberg’s films. She is very honest, very open, very pregnant and very naked all the while. That kind of willingness for vulnerability can so easily be considered contemptible, but I find it to be commendable.
It’s he fourth and final piece, about a man desperate to keep his old sex tapes with a girl who (presumably) dumped him — or find something a little more lifelike — is where the film hits something of a snag, though: it is just downright uncomfortable to watch. The film actually starts off with a short piece from this segment, showing a static shot of an iPhone as it shoots the now-broken up couple having rather boring looking sex. This provocative whiff works very well as a front bookend to set up the films other stories, but the actual segment, with its incredibly dry, overly honest assessment of the deeply warped spaces in a lonely guy’s mind doesn’t work as a closing bookend. It’s the one piece that asks too much. Whether that is because of an overload from the previous pieces or naturally occurring within the fourth piece, I can’t decide, but, to go with film’s motif, ends up being the pubic hair in the mouth of an otherwise thought provoking and essentially good time.
It’s a little strange thinking about people doing these things in real life. They’re almost mythic stories that you run across commonly online, but for some reason, or maybe it’s just this Catholic prude, don’t seem to be real, they seem to be the creation of fetish porn sites. But the facts are this: people take penis enlargement pills; people are into autoerotic asphyxiation; people invite third parties into their bed; and most guys do cling onto mementos of past relationships, especially the dirty ones. It’s brought to the absolute extreme here, but the last part is actually, I would think, the most common thing. Even in the relatively tame Juno, Paulie hangs on to the undies Juno wore during their big night.
This demanding, quietly confrontational film asks you to take a step back and consider your desires, and how far you let yourself go, or how much you hold back. Whether or not it’s a public conversation starter, Autoerotic should at the very least start an internal dialogue.