Summer is here, a time for ice cream, beach frolics, and giant dicks bobbing gently in the breeze. This weekend you can take your pick of three randy new sex comedies: Magic Mike XXL, a sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 hit, brings back Channing Tatum as the title character, a male stripper known for reducing women to jelly with his chiseled physique and killer dance moves. The Overnight, the latest indie project from sibling producers Jay and Mark Duplass, is sort of a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Kink?” in which two young couples get together for dinner and sexual boundaries are crossed as the night stretches on. But the real gem here is The Little Death, a fine debut feature by Australian writer-director Josh Lawson in which five young couples wrestle with their perverse impulses. Weirdly, the movies’ marketing and distribution parallel their respective attitudes toward sex—the farther each is from the American mainstream, the more private and distinctive its sex.
Made on a budget of $7 million and distributed by Warner Bros., Magic Mike attracted scads of women with its delirious bump and grinds, grossing $167 million worldwide, so the studio has thrown some serious advertising money behind XXL. A pistol-hot “teaser” trailer, set to Ginuwine’s “Pony,” cherry-picks the movie’s best scene, in which Magic— retired from the stripping game and now running his own business—rediscovers his inner pony as he’s toiling in his workroom. Pulling a welding mask off his face, he busts some moves across the room, rolling and twisting across his workbench, and a long shot shows him in profile, forcing an iron bar into a grinding wheel with his crotch as sparks fly. A slick ad campaign includes a blue-lit image of the shirtless star spreading his legs, the crotch of his black jeans emblazoned with the announcement coming 07.01.15.
In fact nobody comes at all in Magic Mike XXL, unless you want to count Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), whose trademark dance move is banging a plastic bottle with his crotch so the water squirts across the floor. When Mike learns that Richie and his other pals from the Xquisite Strip Club in Tampa are driving to a big stripping competition in Myrtle Beach, he throws in with them and even persuades them to work up some new routines. Every dance movie that comes out nowadays has to end in a big competition, and in this case the flaccid story line is just an excuse for a series of dance sequences that had women shrieking at the preview screening. (Especially well received was the sequence at an antebellum mansion where the guys entertain a lascivious Andie MacDowell and her thrilled lady friends.) The movie is all tease and no release, which is why the trailer works so well.
The Overnight was written and directed by Patrick Brice, but it belongs to a cornucopia of cheap digital features produced over the past decade by the Duplass brothers. They first made a splash with The Puffy Chair (2005) and Baghead (2008), and began working with Hollywood talent on such movies as Cyrus (2010) and Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011). No one can accuse the Duplasses of pulling the ladder up behind them; among the many up-and-comers they’ve thrown their weight behind, often as producers, have been Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister), Katie Aselton (The Freebie), Charlie McDowell (The One I Love), and Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins). Brice closely follows the brothers’ shoestring formula for success: a short, conventionally structured screenplay; a small cast of young actors, working improv-style and looking for ironic one- liners; cheap locations, like someone’s nice house; and, most important of all, a high- concept story pitched at twentysomething couples, and often involving some sort of sexual experimentation.
Ironically the most memorable scene in The Overnight plays like a grotesque parody of Magic Mike XXL. Newcomers to LA, stay-at-home dad Alex (Adam Scott) and working wife Emily (Taylor Schilling) are in the local park with their young son when he strikes up a friendship with another boy, and the boy’s father, a friendly, laid-back hipster named Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), persuades them to come to dinner that evening with him and his French wife, Charlotte (Judith Godrèche). The families dine together, and later that evening, as the boys sleep, the parents drink and blow bongs, the vibe getting wilder by the minute. When Kurt sheds his shorts by the pool, revealing his gigantic penis, Alex pulls his wife aside for a conference and ultimately announces, “I have an abnormally small dick.” Kurt isn’t having any of this, and after he takes Alex aside for a pep talk—”You’re a stud horse!”—they perform an impromptu striptease. Kurt may be XXL, but as their dance reveals, Alex is decidedly S.
Scott and Schwartzman both wore stunt dicks, but their head-turning routine epitomizes a movie perched between shyness and boldness, traditional and modern values. For all the freaky behavior on display—Kurt spends all his spare time painting colorful canvases of people’s anuses, and Charlotte steals away after dinner to a massage parlor where she gives a strange man a hand job—The Overnight unfolds from the perspective of Alex and Emily, who want to seem open- minded but are actually quite conventional. “I don’t think this is really a box you want to open right now,” Emily tells Alex as they commiserate, wondering if they’ve been pulled into some kind of swinger situation. Nothing could be worse for Emily than the idea that Alex might want another lover—or that she might want one. Ultimately Brice sides with her: by the end of the movie Kurt and Charlotte have seen the error of their ways and started talking to a marriage counselor.
The Little Death lacks the commercial reach of The Overnight or Magic Mike XXL—produced in Australia and distributed in the U.S. by Magnolia Pictures, it screens for one week only at Gene Siskel Film Center. Josh Lawson, the writer and director, graduated from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art before coming here to study improv with Second City, the Groundlings, and other groups; he’s gotten small roles in Hollywood comedies like The Campaign (2012) and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013), but most of his work has been on Australian TV. The Little Death is his feature film debut, and it’s beautifully scripted, each of its five story lines working out the comic implications of a perverse urge: masochism, role-play fetishism, dacryphilia (pleasure from seeing someone cry), somnophilia (pleasure from watching someone sleep), and telephone scatalogia (pleasure from talking dirty on the phone). Whenever one of its five couples reaches a dramatic crisis, up pops a grizzled neighbor, going door-to-door to inform people he’s a registered sex offender.
Given the movie’s limited availability, you won’t be surprised to learn that there’s more raw sex in it than in the other two movies combined. The Little Death opens with a close-up of Paul (Lawson) licking the toes of his beloved girlfriend Maeve (Serbian beauty Bojana Novakovic) before a medium shot in profile shows him climbing onto her on a living room couch. In another story line, Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie (Kate Mulvany) have problems in bed, but after their marriage counselor suggests they take up role-playing, a scenario featuring Dan as a commanding police detective and Evie as his pliant witness carries them right into the sack. Then there’s Rowena (Kate Box), who discovers that she’s powerfully aroused by the tears of her husband, Richard (Patrick Brammall); she hasn’t had an orgasm in years, but she rides him to climax after news of his father’s death causes him to break down weeping.
Not only is there more sex in The Little Death, there’s more human behavior, and consequently there are more laughs. When Maeve confesses to Paul that she’s always had a rape fantasy, he’s offended that she would want a stranger forcing himself on her, but she reassures him: “You are the only man in the world I want to rape me.” Because he loves her so much, he goes to increasingly dangerous lengths to stage the rape she’s always wanted, getting seriously banged up in the process. Phil (Alan Dukes), a harried husband and father, discovers that he’s turned on by his wife, Maureen (Lisa McCune), when she’s asleep, and he begins drugging her so they can lie chastely together. As he explains to Maureen later, she’s a softer person in her sleep, no longer the nagging, critical woman who cuts him down every day. There’s some seriously strange and affecting stuff going on in The Little Death, but that’s the kind of bounty you can hope for when you make a movie behind closed doors. v