The video store that I always went to, as soon as I was old enough to ride the bus on my own, was Videomatica. Unlike most video stores, where you bring an empty display case to the cashier, Videomatica actually requires you to vocally request — out loud — which movie you would like to rent. Because I assumed (and continue to assume) that video store clerks are all silently judging your rentals, I could only conclude that this system was put in place for maximum potential humiliation.
I was forced to avoid watching this movie for many years because I couldn’t bring myself to rent it. My fear was that the cashier (not to mention any fellow customers in earshot) would not know that it was a PG-rated comedy by a 21-time Oscar nominee, but would assume, based on the title, that it was some sort of smutty documentary for curious, pubescent boys. Or even worse, that I would fail to return the movie on time and would get a phone call at home (which was, at the time, my parents’ home) and my mother would discover an unpleasant phone message that would fill her head with revolting images of sticky videocassettes hidden under my pillow. And my mother, never good with titles, would probably end up saying something like “Trevor, the video store called and they want their sex movie back.”
My anxiety was probably exaggerated by the fact that, at the time, I was a curious, pubescent boy, and secretly I hoped it would have at least some of the many, many things I wanted to know about sex. Sadly, in terms of movie titles, this film’s rivals Naked Lunch’s as one of the most disappointingly inaccurate of all time.
The movie’s premise further suggests a certain educational value. It is “based” on the book of the same title, a best-selling, non-fiction guide by Dr. David Reuben. The book was incredibly popular, selling over 100 million copies worldwide. From what I can gather, it was sort of a Kama Sutra for repressed American housewives. It’s the sort of thing Oprah would champion, if it wasn’t for the book’s regressive (even by 1970s standards) commentary on the “deviance” of homosexuality.
Like the over-dubbing of What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, this movie’s concept was not Woody Allen’s idea. United Artists bought the rights to the super-bestseller (for presumably a fairly large amount of money) and handed it off to their star player. He did, I guess, the only thing that makes sense, and made a sketch-comedy movie. The movie has seven parts, each with a title named after a chapter from the book. They are:
- Do Aphrodisiacs Work?
- What is Sodomy?
- Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching an Orgasm?
- Are Transvestites Homosexuals?
- What Are Sex Perverts?
- Are the Findings of Doctors and Clinics Who Do Sexual Research and Experiments Accurate?
- What Happens During Ejaculation?
I’ll spare you rote re-caps of each segment, which you can find on Wikipedia, if you’d really like. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are not overly memorable, but very easy to watch. They would be more than passable as Saturday Night Live skits on a good night. 2 and 7, which I’ll discuss later, are the film’s highlights.
If we’re still tracking influences, the third segment is notable for it’s take-off on the stylish, decadent Italian films by Fellini and Antonioni. Like the heroes of La Dolce Vita or Blow Out, Allen plays a sophisticated lady’s man, living dangerously and seducing beautiful women. His lover (played by Louise Lasser, in her final movie with her ex-husband), is incapable of achieving orgasm unless she’s in public, a plot-point borrowed from Casanova 70. The sixth segment features a gigantic, monstrous breast terrorizing the landscape. This is possibly a reference to Phillip Roth’s The Breast, which was published in 1972 and also featured a single, oversized boob. Allen’s relationship with Roth has always been ambiguous — unlike Bergman or Fellini, of whom he is clearly in awe, it’s unclear whether the numerous Roth references throughout his career are made out of admiration or contempt. Here, even if the dueling portrayals of sentient breasts are not just coincidental, the reference does nothing to clarify his stance.
The second sequence, like the rest of the film’s chapters, suffers from a relatively thin single-joke premise stretched out a bit too long, but it makes itself memorable with strong execution, thanks in particular to a great performance by Gene Wilder. Wilder (star of The Producers and Young Frankenstein) plays Dr. Ross, a family doctor who sees a patient who has fallen in love with a sheep. Initially disturbed, Ross grows much more sympathetic when he meets Daisy, the sheep in question, and starts falling for her as well.
The brilliance of Wilder’s performance is that he approaches his blossoming love (both romantic and sexual) for Daisy with sincerity and subtlety. Not playing up the melodrama or the wackiness of the premise, Wilder acts like no one told him he wasn’t in a romantic comedy. Also funny is the sheep itself, which is not a playful Cute Overload lamb, but a rugged, homely working-sheep with a total lack of affect and a nasal, whiny bray.
Finally, there is the best and best-known sequence, which earns its classic and iconic status. This chapter portrays a dinner-date and an awkward sexual encounter from the perspective of a human body as a NASA-like control center run by little men. The managers in the brain pass directions down to the minions in the stomach, the eyes, ears, etc — making decisions and coping with physical hurdles within the various departments. Among the brain managers are Tony Randall and Burt Reynolds.
Elsewhere in the body, sperm get ready for a potential launch. One of the sperm is played by Woody Allen. If you’re like me, you can’t really think of anything more inherently hilarious than that. What could be more efficient, simplistic and purpose-driven than a sperm? Who better to provide humorous dissonance than Woody Allen, the personification of neurotic introspection and emotional over-complication?
The entire minutiae of the sexual experience is broken down into orders and procedures — from the interference from the guilt department to the downloading of baseball statistics to distract the sperm from premature launch. I don’t have much to add apart from regurgitating the funniest parts, so I will stop, and just leave with the best line.
Contrasting greatly with Play it Again, Sam (which opened just a few months prior), this movie is pure silliness. I haven’t read the book it’s based on, but it doesn’t seem like Allen is taking any opportunities to satirize the material, or comment on the culture that would make it such a big hit. Ultimately, the book provides nothing more than an excuse for a bunch of sex jokes — some of which are very funny, but none of which are very educational.
- “I’m currently working on a new book: Advanced Sexual Positions: How to Achieve Them Without Laughing“
- “When it comes to sex, there are certain things that should remain unknown. And with my luck, they probably always will be.”
- This is the only time Woody Allen adapted someone else’s work into a movie (although it’s stretching to call this an ‘adaptation’).
- The author of the original book (Dr. David Reuben) once appeared on The Tonight Show and stole one of Woody Allen’s jokes (“sex is only dirty if you’re doing it right”) without giving him credit. This angered Allen and motivated him to take on this project as a way of satirizing Reuben’s slick, insipid work.
- This movie was incredibly popular, making $18 million (~$95 million 2010 dollars), enough to make it the second biggest comedy of 1972 (after What’s Up, Doc? with Barbara Streisand).
- There was another chapter that was filmed but cut. The title was “What Makes Men Homosexual?” and featured Allen and Louise Lasser as spiders (the female ultimately eating the male after intercourse). It was cut, but images from it still appear on the movie’s DVD cover.
- The chapter titles in this movie are in the typeface “Windsor Light Condensed” — the same one that Woody Allen used for all his credits in all his movies from now on.
- Regis Philbin is in this movie. He plays himself.
- Elsewhere in 1972, Allen’s past and future co-star Diane Keaton was making somewhat of a name for herself in The Godfather.
- Gene Wilder’s character has the same name as George Clooney’s character in ER (Dr. Doug Ross). Yes, I noticed that on my own. And yes, I think it’s probably just a coincidence.