Each generation gets a defining youth movie. Rebel Without a Cause gave way to Where the Boys Are, which led to The Graduate, then to American Graffiti, then to Animal House, then to The Breakfast Club. I was born in 1985, the year of Club‘s release, but my generation’s defining film—not just youth movie, but defining film, period—was 1999’s American Pie. The majority of popular American films about teenagers, it seems, have been about young men getting laid, and the major devolution has been in how explicit they’ve gotten. American Pie helped usher in the gross-out comedy, in which audiences were guiltlessly invited to laugh at a protagonist’s prolonged humiliation so long as he (and, by extension, the viewer) got nookie in the end. Since the success of the film (and of its multiple sequels), we’ve seen a loss of interest in character at the expense of sex, which makes a film like Sex Drive possible.
The title’s a weak pun based on the journey 18-year-old Ian (Josh Zuckerman) makes from Chicago to Knoxville to meet Ms. Tasty, an Internet girlfriend who’s promised to give him some. Ian takes along two companions, lothario Lance (Clark Duke, a baby-faced, doughy version of Rainn Wilson) and “best friend”/secret crush Felicia (Amanda Crew). Orson Welles once said that a story was a thing to hang a play on; here, the story becomes a thing to hang a thingy on, as the kids alternately have to pee in their radiator to get their car started, run naked from crazy hillbillies and take abstinence pledges while watching gorgeous women undress. To show that it’s current, the film has other characters photograph our heroes and post the pics on the Web.
Here is an example of how hip this movie is: Ian works at a donut shop, and one day has to walk around a shopping mall in a donut costume handing out coupons. Some kids stick a dildo on him without his knowing it. He approaches a man and his daughter, asking if the man would like a treat for his little girl. The man punches him in the face. Once he’s tumbled down the stairs he asks, “Is there a dick on me again?”
Sex Drive thrives on cruelty, not just toward its main characters, but also at animals (an extended joke involves killing a possum), poor people (Felicia tells a crying gas station attendant, “You know what might make you feel better? Putting $40 on Pump 2”), Southerners (nearly all of whom are crooks and predators), and gays. The words “fag” and “queer” rival “is” and “to” in this movie, which is fascinating considering both the number of phallic symbols on display (corn dogs, lollipops, wooden and metal poles) and the frequent male nudity. Ian’s older brother Rex (James Marsden), the film’s most vicious gay-baiter (“No way is my little brother taking it in the chili ring,” he says), eventually comes out himself, which seems like Sex Drive‘s mealy-mouthed attempt to say that it was only kidding. But there’s only so much you can kid about.
The film doesn’t shock me so much as sadden and weary me. The screening audience I was with laughed programmatically, and I know that the film will make its money back while more engaging fare gets pushed aside. It’s not just that Sex Drive picks the bones of sweeter, funnier teen movies like Say Anything… and Superbad for its soulless purposes; it’s that it shares with Juno, perhaps the most recent teen trendsetter, a callous and egotistical lack of interest in anyone outside its demographic. Sex Drive also assumes that teens are too stupid to realize how much contempt the film has for them. I have contempt for this film, and for the culture that endorses it. Saying that it’s just a movie is like saying that Sarah Palin is just a politician.