There’s a memorable/notorious scene in Judd Apatow’s 2005 breakthrough hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin that finds secondary characters David (Paul Rudd) and Cal (Seth Rogen) playing a video game and riffing on the different ways each man knows the other is “gay.” Their explanations range from stereotypical to obvious, and while the scene can be read as homophobic, I’ve always thought it a little smarter (and funnier) than that; it’s a commentary on stereotypes, but also on the sometimes imperceptibly thin line between admitted sexual attractions and the kind of affectionate “bromances” that populate mainstream comedies by Apatow and his contemporaries. But these things go in cycles, and it feels like we’re in the early moments of a new one, in which the sexual fluidity that was so often subtext in these comedies is finally moving into the foreground.
The Guardian almost puts its finger on what’s going on in a new piece about “how the sex movie got its groove back,” drawing the line from ‘60s and ‘70s “sexploitation” flicks to the likes of Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s The D Train, Eli Roth’s forthcoming Knock Knock, and, erm, Fifty Shades of Grey. But the connections are fuzzy; the Roth film is a direct homage to the era, while Grey is much more of an ‘80s throwback, and as for the leap to the upcoming (and already controversial) Love, well, Gaspar Noé gonna Gaspar Noé.
But what’s happening in The Overnight and The D Train — small films, yes, but featuring prominent comedy actors like Jack Black and Adam Scott — isn’t retro sexploitation. Guardian’s Damon Wise writes that The Overnight “harks back to the swinging, swapping ’60s of Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” but (spoiler alert) Mazursky’s picture considered the prospective orgy of its four title characters from a purely heterosexual standpoint; The Overnight, well, doesn’t. If you want to find a connection to a film from that era, it’s less Bob & Carol than something like Radley Metzger’s Score — but you have to dig pretty deep, as the sexual fluidity of Metzger’s characters was certainly the exception rather than the norm.
Not that this has changed all that much, which is part of why the leap from admiration to intimacy in The D Train packs such a punch; it’s one of those movies that so flagrantly goes where comedies usually don’t that it functions as both narrative and sly film criticism. But movies like these aren’t taking their cues from ‘70s cinema, which took giant leaps in storytelling and technique while trafficking in the mustiest and often most offensive of stereotypes (give The Celluloid Closet a read, if you somehow haven’t yet). They’re working from what’s happening on the fringes of independent cinema and comedy.
Mark Duplass is credited as an executive producer on The Overnight; six years ago, he co-starred in Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, one of (until now) precious few recent comedies to dare crossing the “bromance” line. And, of course, Duplass is one of the key figures of the so-called “mumblecore” movement, and the line from the central ethos of that movement — low budgets, intimate storytelling, sexual candor — to the upswing in LGBT indie movies over the past few years isn’t hard to draw. The low-cost/niche audience (and, often, Netflix exposure) model that Duplass and his ilk perfected indicates a hunger for stories where the sexual scorecard isn’t always puzzled out from the opening credits forward, and suggests that (for at least a certain, enlightened portion of the audience) a story that challenges the proclaimed heterosexuality of its characters doesn’t automatically cause moviegoers to shriek “EWW GAY” and run to the exit/reach for the remote.
It’s also worth noting that the same period has seen a marked shift in the comic mainstream. When Apatow’s 40-Year-Old Virgin was released (yeesh) ten years ago, it shared multiplex screens with Wedding Crashers, which stands alongside titles like Old School and Anchorman as the nexus of the “Frat Pack” and their domination of movie comedy (films that often packed “gay panic” into their comic toolbox). Apatow wasn’t entirely removed from that group — he co-produced Anchorman and Talladega Nights, among others — but his style and aesthetic was looser and riskier. Now, thanks not only to Apatow’s cinematic success but that of actors-turned-writer/stars (whose efforts he’s often produced) like Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segal, and Kristen Wiig, his is the dominant voice of studio movie comedy.
Apatow is also no schmuck, wisely aligning himself with up-and-comers like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer for Girls and the forthcoming Trainwreck. And as alt-comedy outlets like Broad City and filmmakers like Desiree Akhavan push boundaries, question norms, and frame discussions, edgier and more experimental mainstream comedians begin to join the conversation — such as Louis C.K., who included a provocative, gender-bent sex scene in the most recent season of Louie. Films like The Overnight and The D Train are part of this trend, which points towards promising, tantalizing new directions and possibilities for mainstream comic storytelling.