Review: Joe Swanberg & Adam Wingard Take a Different Approach to Fleshing Out Their Ideas in “Autoerotic”

The title of his latest film may be the most sexually provocative yet, but it's a sense of restraint that benefits Joe Swanberg's latest (with co-director Adam Wingard) most....

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It's the pictures that got small, not the libidos in "Autoerotic," a collaboration between Joe Swanberg and Adam Wingard that begins with a couple recording themselves in some pre-intercourse spanking on their iPhone before seguing into four vignettes about sexually frustrated twentysomethings in Chicago.

Thankfully, the iPhone is just hinting at the voyeurism to come rather than serving as the device used to film “Autoerotic,” which might be the fear of some potential audiences given its obvious low budget roots. But the greater implication is that the couple would be unable to perform without it, an idea that’s the crux for each of “Autoerotic”’s four stories, all of them between nameless couples who have a specific obstacle blocking them from sexual satisfaction. In different corners of the Windy City, there’s a poorly-endowed man (Lane Hughes) who turns to penis enhancement pills and gets more than he bargained for, a constantly masturbating woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) who seeks more drastic methods to get off, a pregnant woman (Kris Swanberg) unable to orgasm since carrying child, and a man (Ti West) who asks his ex to make a mold of her private parts.

Autoerotic2 In the hands of another director, such premises might sound shocking, but not so anymore from Swanberg, who long ago established himself as the one director willing to go there with the amount of nudity he asks of his actors and the simulated sex they subsequently act out. Such frankness has long opened up the writer/director’s work to avenues that couldn’t be explored by others, but the fear has always been that it would ultimately box him in.

Strangely, containment might have been the best thing to happen to him, as the four-segment structure of “Autoerotic” (particularly with its 72-minute running time) has tightened up the narratives to let out some nice comic beats, something I’ve felt has been missing from his work since “Hannah Takes the Stairs.” This isn’t to ignore the contribution of Wingard, who besides appearing in the film’s opening scene, was also said to have directed its final vignette, which while considerably darker than the first three segments, fits in with the “Twilight Zone” vibe of the whole production.

Separated by shots of Chicago highways set to synth music, the segments each build to a revelation that more often than not doubles as a punchline and though breezily sketched, they manage the trick of being entertaining while gently provocative, not as much for the skin on display as the lingering, unsettling notions of very real desires and intimate fears colliding with what’s considered appropriate behavior. The actual execution of “Autoerotic” is too blunt to let them linger for long, but on a subject that’s been too often reduced to grossout humor to deal with awkwardness, the film is a rare comedy of manners. But a dirty one. 

"Autoerotic" is currently available on demand and will have a special one-night midnight screening on August 12th at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles.

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