I’m going to share something with you. I have a sick obsession with sex movies. I don’t mean I always watch them with salacious intentions, because I have to draw the line between art and pornography somewhere. Let me be clear, I really enjoy a movie whose sole purpose is to titillate a viewer so much that they question what they are really watching. I’ve spent many nights snuggled up on my couch cringing my way through Catherine Breillat’s many sex shockers. I made a boyfriend attend a viewing party for the highly controversial, yet exceptionally boring, 9 Songs. I’ve even gotten into fights with Netflix over its recommendation of Salo based on my high rating of Irreversible. Those last two movies have nothing in common, by the way.
Sex-centric dramas have been a secret, back alley passion of mine. But in all my years devouring these movies, I rarely see comedies that both deal frankly with sex and show it. Sex is usually the butt of a joke in comedies, rather than a catalyst for moving a couple forward.
I felt that way until I watched Going The Distance last fall. This poorly received comedy jumped off the mountain The Sweetest Thing and Knocked Up scaled years before it. While the movie never shows two naughty bits touching, it does offer a many completely honest portrayals of sex—including a particularly hilarious phone-sex scene. As someone who’s twiddled her tenders with a long-distance lover on the other line, it was refreshing to see a big studio-produced romantic comedy include masturbation as a tool to move the couple closer. It could have easily gone in the direction of embarrassment like There’s Something About Mary or Fast Times At Ridgemont High, but instead it provided a glimpse into the challenges long-distance couple face.
But what makes Going The Distance such a great example of a mature sex comedy is that it shows a realistic couple and provides a level of raunch guaranteed to please everyone. While Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) go through the evolution of a budding couple, the other people in their lives continue on their own sexual paths. Multiple times in the movie Erin’s sister Corinne (Christina Applegate) informs Erin that she doesn’t even enjoy sex anymore, preferring the “dry humping” her husband Phil (Jim Gaffigan) does to her following a couple glasses of wine. Later, after a particularly fun night out, Corinne and Phil are caught fully clothed and in mid-thrust on their dining room table. Unlike the earlier phone sex scene which brought up issues the couple desperately needed to address, this scene was cathartic in its hilarity.
But what happens when the romantic couple starts off all sexy but with sans interest in romance? Both Love and Other Drugs and No Strings Attached take this approach. These couples are heathens, wanting emotionless physical contact. Feelings are icky, commitment is scary. Sex is freeing and shouldn’t require more passion than necessary to reach satisfaction or relieve stress. Any rational person knows that’s kind of a ridiculous sentiment, but good sex makes couples think all crazy-like. The comedy comes when they keep trying to convince themselves, and their partners, that feelings don’t mean anything when it comes to sex. We laugh at the lengths the couple goes to hide their feelings with sex, not the sex itself.
Chronic sickness makes Love and Other Drugs’ Maggie (Anne Hathaway) unwilling to commit emotionally to cad Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal), but that doesn’t stop the two of them from spending the majority of the movie naked. Sex is used early and often for this couple as a way of distracting them from their feelings for each other. The movie doesn’t slut-shame them for being young and casual, but it does require them to grow up and accept the naturalness of their compatibility. We are treated to both their awkward romantic stumblings and their delightful nakedness. The audience wants them together but the movie fantasy promises that they remain sexually driven and emotionally connected even after the screen goes black.
Similarly, No Strings Attached’s Emma (Natalie Portman) sees a perfect casual sex partner in Adam (Ashton Kutcher) due to his dedication to never falling in love again. She doesn’t have to worry about him wanting to cuddle after sex, or introducing him to her parents. Adam is the perfect addition to Emma’s career driven world. However, Emma and Adam play in two different sandboxes. It is clear that Emma is only interested in distractions from her medical residency and personal fears of monogamy, and Adam believes that if he sticks it out long enough she’ll give in to him. Rather than feel wronged, Adam is conscious enough of his own needs to push her away when sex no longer fulfills them. Romantic comedies rarely show respect to men, let alone humanize them. And it doesn’t hurt that both Portman and Kutcher can go believably from eye-locking passionate to goofy adorable while rumpling sheets.
As an avid romance novel reader, I know the stages of these couples. If they have sex right away they have to break up then make up. Yet it’s a little different in Going The Distance, Love and Other Drugs and No Strings Attached. The sex isn’t overly simulated for laughs or behind closed doors for modesty. The sex scenes do what they should — move the story along. Why has it taken so long for a mainstream romantic comedy to show sex as a natural progression in a relationship? It’s almost juvenile to think a couple can evolve without it, and as a mature movie watcher I feel almost robbed when sex is ignored.
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In the meantime, read more of Gwen’s writing over at Reel Vixens