The management of the movie house confiscated my cell phone at a screening of Sex Drive last week.
"But I'm with the press," I explained to the security guard who was frisking me. "I'm here to review this thing."
"Doesn't matter," he said as he passed a metal detector between my legs, I guess to make sure I didn't have a video camera crammed up my ass. "No phones or cameras in the theater until this thing gets released."
The world has changed. Back when I was a movie critic, Dan Harkins arranged private screenings for reviewers, at our convenience. Or the studio would send a videotape of the movie, which you could give away after you'd looked at it. Internet leaks of plot points from film comedies weren't a concern back then. And one didn't sit through a nighttime screening surrounded by 200 of the film's target audience, either.
Some things haven't changed. Like the public's appetite for movies about teenage boys who will do anything to lose their virginity. And homosexuality as the punchline to every 17-year-old's sick joke. And Sean Anders' ability to turn a nice little story into a surprisingly stylish road movie.
Sex Drive is Anders' new film, a bigger-budgeted, mainstream Hollywood vehicle, and his first since 2005's Never Been Thawed, the surprise hit indie that helped pave the former Mesa director's fast-lane trip to Hollywood.
"It's been a huge transition from shooting a little movie with a bunch of friends to the big studio thing," Anders told me during a phone interview punctuated with driving instructions ("Turn left here!") to whoever was spiriting him away from Phoenix and, presumably, back to his L.A. digs. "But it's also been a lot of the same things we did on Never Been Thawed: getting a performance out of people; pointing a camera at them; figuring out how to tell the story."
In this case, the story is about a 17-year-old nerd who's about to start college and is still a virgin. His best friends are a fat-kid Lothario who bags every girl he meets, and a pretty, post-goth chick on whom our hero has a secret crush. The trio head out on a daylong road trip in search of some sex for the nerd, and wind up — surprise! — learning valuable (and often amusing) life lessons instead.
Based on the Andy Behrens novel All the Way, the film Sex Drive is written by Anders and John Morris, with whom he wrote Never Been Thawed. Both the novel and the film borrow liberally from The Sure Thing, a 1985 Rob Reiner picture in which John Cusack plays a college kid who makes a cross-country trip in order to get laid and ends up instead falling for his female traveling companion. Anders' film benefits from, among other things, performances from superstar nerd Seth Green and a giant talking doughnut, and is elevated by dopey kids whose triumphs don't magically transform them into cool adults.
"John and I talked about how the teen movies we grew up with really fucked us up as far as meeting women," Anders admits. "Because in those movies, the sweet, nerdy guy is funny and charming and gets the girl in the end." In Sex Drive, the cute girl couples up with the nerd, who remains something of a loser, because the fat guy on whom she has a crush is a slutty asshole. He's among the archetypes that Anders and Morris have turned on their heads: Here, the chubby boy is the one who's getting all the hot tail while, for example, our hero's sexy older brother is a hateful turd who never seems to have a girlfriend.
"The thing about all those movies that influenced us is that they were written by hopeful nerds," Anders says. "So of course the nerd gets the girl in the end. Our story is no different, and I'm a big nerd, too, but I'm not so hopeful. What I've learned over the years it that women want men, not boys or sniveling runts. What we're saying is that being a man doesn't mean being tough and big and brawny, but about being comfortable in your own skin."
On the other hand, the hero of Sex Drive does wind up with the girl in the end, largely because he points a gun at some bad guys, thereby saving the day. But at least Morris and Anders have drawn kids who — even when they're obese and funny-looking and still getting laid three times a week —sound like teenagers. Especially when they're making fun of fags, who are still the universal punchline of every teenage insult.
Anders insists that that verisimilitude was the whole point of all the "don't be a fag!" commentary in his film, because he's no gay-basher himself. But this higher message appeared lost on the college-age crowd into which I wedged myself at the film's screening; they laughed louder at lines like "No brother of mine is going to take it in the chili ring!" (a rather colorful and possibly Anders-created euphemism for being gay) than they did at any of the film's various pratfalls and comic punch-outs.
"We're not making fun of gay people," Anders insists, "but at other people's discomfort with them. What we really hope is that our movie and others like it are gonna be dated one day. I hope that people will one day look at these movies and say, 'Really? Was there really that kind of attitude about gay people in society?'"
In the meantime, homosexuals are still court jesters; American filmmakers still make road movies and films about teenagers dying to lose their virginity — Superbad, anyone? American Pie? — in which pimply losers prevail. Kind of. Sex Drive is the latest entry in this subgenre, one that's more entertaining than it should be, and that will probably leave most grownup viewers longing for a really great road movie.