There are probably oeuvres far more nocuous and deserving of vitriol than that of Julie Davis, an AFI grad who clawed her way up from the workaday banalities of softcore editing booths to an indie directorial career proselytizing a new “feminine” sexuality of shameless corporeal gratification and conservative emotional compromise—call it the “Vibrator and Cuddle” philosophy. One assumes that there are more toxic and disingenuous explorations of clitoral awareness and soft, squishy libido than a film like Amy’s Orgasm—tantalizingly bowdlerized to Amy’s O for home video—just as there must be movies that take virginity less seriously then Finding Bliss, whose female protagonist is so sensually awkward that she swears off men altogether and sublimates her desire for penetration into career gumption. After all, such scenarios are tasteless, cloying, vapid, and at their most aesthetically bankrupt, condescending—but surely they aren’t exploitative?
Naught-eur Davis mythologizes her own rise to sub-fame in Finding Bliss, about a love-luckless twentysomething named Jody (Leelee Sobieski) who finds herself splicing together cum shots post-film school out of necessity while she nurses her own rom-com script. The film tiptoes confusedly around Davis’s de facto frigidity, desperately attempting to avoid judging the sexually gawky, but instead appearing hopelessly out of touch with its cracker-thin characters; Jody’s discomfort with nudity makes her simply seem socially skittish, but when she reacts to a purple dildo as though she’s never even deigned to hold a showerhead to her quivering self, we feel the film cheating out on its Valley milieu. And naturally, all the denizens of the adult entertainment company that employs Jody have hearts of pure gold and heads of pure fluff: office nebbish Gary (P.J. Byrne) offers perpetual apologies for the industry’s unflappable crassness; faux-cynical director Jeff Drake (Matthew Davis) eventually reveals his extant mainstream aspirations; and producer Irene (Kristen Johnston) displays unlikely lenience toward Jody’s clandestine theft of afterhours studio time and “film stock” (has there been a garden variety erotica feature shot on celluloid since the mid-‘80s?). The only character worth sympathizing with is air-brained, pretty-boy porn star Dick Harder (Jamie Kennedy), primarily because he, too, fails to laugh at the ossified comic inanity of Davis’s script (voluminous stretches of anguished silenced are broken only for a half-second chuckle at a punning Gladiator/Glad He Ate Her title).
That the movie contains a love story between two floundering auteurs that can only blossom when the female counterpart lets loose enough to admit the snug joy of sleaze should come as no shock; the subplot, indeed, will likely be the primary draw for the film’s razor thin demographic of women so disdainful of the embarrassment of bodily fluids that they deny themselves human intimacy until being bowled over by the putatively prurient bromides of an independent film. What’s more startling is that Finding Bliss is just as gender-exploitative as the pornography it so delicately criticizes as distant and unemotional while back-handedly championing the corporeal freedom it represents. In one key scene, Jody and Drake debate the inclusion of facial expressions during scenes of raw humping, which are assumed to be too implicating, too gushy, for the male gaze to get off on. It’s an unfortunately genuine concern in the adult industry, and it both implies and perpetuates an egregious stereotype of men too cock-centric and self-absorbed to bother making eye contact with their partners. But is it any more sexually stratifying than a film that eye-rollingly conflates primal horniness with the want for tender spooning while hypocritically claiming to espouse a filthier and more permissive relationship pragmatism? It’s all harmless idealism, yes, and nothing new, but when insidiously masquerading as progressive realism, the crusty gender roles are offered perilous power. Like the most blithering chick flicks, Finding Bliss obnoxiously and misleadingly wants to have its cake and get eaten too.