Though it is all about sex, Woody Allen's EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) is really all about movies. Taking Dr. David Reuben's book, a pop culture phenomenon of the late 1960s, Woody uses it only as a starting point for indulging in his second greatest passion, film-making. Indeed, he tosses aside most of Reuben's self-help, non-fiction sex manual and only quotes chapter titles as inspiration for his various vignettes, each designed to parody some aspect of our pop media. What the book and the movie do have in common however is that they are products of their time (post-sexual revolution, pre-politically correctness) and as such their outlook on their common topic is a bit dated.
SEX, the movie, is best thought of as being seven individual short films; a few that are hilarious or at least clever, and a couple that just fall flat. The ones that stray most from the movies as their source come off worse. For instance, "Are Transvestites Homosexuals?" is second rate sitcom: Middle-aged man is caught trying on dresses while visiting his daughter's new in-laws. It is a one-gag skit, though burly Lou Jacobi makes the most of the material as the giddy crossdressing poppa. Meanwhile, "What Are Sex Perverts?" begins with a clever concept, but is defeated by its own awkward attempts to be outrageous. Staged as a 1950's TV game show -- grainy, black-and-white images and all -- "What's My Perversion?" looks authentic, but tries to trivialize sexual deviancy for dubious comic effect. Scattered throughout Woody's filmography are tossed-off asides trying to find snickers in wisecracks about rape or child molestation or incest and other sundry unfunny sexual tragedies, and invariably such unnecessary pseudo-ad libs land with a resounding thud. "What's My Perversion?" is made up mostly of such discomforting quips and builds to a joke about a rabbi getting off by watching his wife eat pork. I think Woody is the only person who ever finds such cheap jabs at rabbis even remotely funny.
Fortunately, the rest of he skits come off much, much better. The vignette "Do Aphrodisiacs Work?" makes fun of Shakesperean dramas and other similar costume epics; while simultaneously paying homage to one of Woody's screen idols, Bob Hope. Like Hope, Woody contributes wisecracking anachronistic one-liners as a lustful Court Jester with the hots for his Queen. The bit isn't well written with Woody relying far too heavily on intentionally awful puns, but playing Allen's low camp humor about chastity belts off the high-toned pomposity of Elizabethan drama somehow makes it work decently.
The two best vignettes also work well because Woody plays them close to the style of their inspirations. "Are the Findings of Doctors and Clinics Who Do Sexual Research Accurate?" mimics cheesy, grade-D, drive-in horror movies of the sixties with mad scientist John Carridine hamming it up gleefully in a calculated self-parody. The absurd premise involving a giant mutant female breast terrorizing the countryside ("The cream slowed him up and the milk killed him!") builds to the most awesomely silly climax in any Woody Allen movie. The segment is topped however by "What Happens During Ejaculation?" which takes the phrase "mechanical sex" to its most logical extreme. The segment mimics the Kubrickian coldness of contemporary sci-fi, portraying the male human body as a giant, and not-particularly-coordinated, space station on a carnal mission to boldly go where other men have apparently come and gone before. With Woody taking a small role (literally) as an anxious sperm awaiting for his first and only mission, the segment is silly, yet true enough to almost be worthy of inclusion in a basic biology class.
Yet, from a somewhat a different perspective the remaining episodes might be the most intriguing. They are "What is Sodomy?" and "Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching Orgasm?"; the former being about a doctor (Gene Wilder) who has an affair with a sheep and the latter about a woman (Louise Lasser) who is aroused by sex in public places. Both are amusing in their own right, but the added consideration is that Woody uses them to parody the types of films he would soon eagerly try to imitate. "Sodomy," though hilarious in its deadpan way, is not all that different in stilted tone or pretentious theme from Allen's later efforts like INTERIORS, ANOTHER WOMAN or HUSBANDS AND WIVES. And as such, the aloof ennui that he mimics from Bergman and Antonioni for "Orgasm" would reappear with deadly earnest in those same films. It is curious that Woody would eventually embrace stylistics that he had first found so easy to ridicule. Maybe that is why he so ardently avoided any trace of humor in those later films, he realized just how easily they can lapse into self-parody.
With its leering, bawdy approach to sex, the film reflects little of Reuben's glib, simplistic text and instead has more in common with the pseudo-sophisticated raunchiness of the "Playboy" magazine of the era. Yet in its juvenile way, there is something almost innocently naughty about the movie that makes it almost quaint -- especially when compared to today's standards of vulgarity. As such EVERYTHING YOU HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* is something of a period piece, reflecting a time when being outrageously tasteless was something unique and not something tiresomely routine.
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