[2 September 2011]
If you were asked to pick a Saturday Night Live cast member most likely to become a movie star, Jason Sudeikis wouldn’t be an obvious choice. But Saturday Night Live cast members often forge film careers on that unlikelihood (even some of Adam Sandler’s fans may marvel that he became one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood). Doing sketch comedy, Sudeikis is very funny, but often in a Phil Hartman-like utility-player mode: he can be plugged into any number of sketches and make his part work.
In 2011, Sudeikis is all of a sudden turning up in movies, not just doing cameos in his buddies’ projects, but as a burgeoning leading man. His persona in Hall Pass, Horrible Bosses, and now, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, has been strikingly consistent: a genial horndog. His characters in all three movies obsess over sex, but with almost puppyish enthusiasm. Rather than playing an obvious smoothie, he follows the Bill Murray/Chevy Chase tradition of dissolute handsomeness (though he’s arguably more traditionally attractive than either of them), but more affable and less sarcastic.
That lack of edge could leave Sudeikis in danger of blandness. He doesn’t have Murray’s gift for walking into a movie and improving it by sheer force of personality. But affability is just what a sex comedy like A Good Old Fashioned Orgy needs, and in his unassuming way, Sudeikis carries the film. He plays Eric, ringleader of a group of longtime friends heading into their 30s. They all have adult lives and responsibilities, which they all escape when Eric throws wild parties every summer at his father’s house on Long Island.
This routine has to change when dad (Don Johnson) decides to sell the house. Eric becomes determined to end the last summer with his best party ever. Rather than the hundreds-strong blowouts of the past (including an amusingly elaborate “White Trash Bash” that opens the film), he and his best friend/yes-man McCrudden (Tyler Labine) propose a more intimate affair: the core group will get together and have sex with each other. The group’s initial response is tepid (“I cannot imagine a more awkward and uncomfortably terrible evening,” someone says), but as the summer wears on, more of the friends talk themselves into it. The movie follows Eric and company as they make preparations, generating more suspense than you might expect from a sex comedy.
The suspense comes from the expectation, created by so many other raunchy but morally conservative comedies, that likable characters will probably not have commitment-free sex with each other (at least not without tender feelings forming the way they do in No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits), and certainly not with multiple partners in a single night. And the characters in Orgy are eminently likable: led by Sudeikis, they demonstrate a believable, affectionate group friendship, even when the group is made up of musty types like the crude fat guy with the wacky name (Labine’s McCrudden); Adam, the uptight workaholic germophobe (Nick Kroll); or Alison, the doctor who communicates in therapy-speak (Lake Bell).
Save for Labine’s mildly lame but not irritating clowning (the comedy world currently has several poor man’s Jack Black routines too many), these stock characters are fun to be around. Their interest in the orgy party bypasses frat-boy (and/or sorority-girl prurience) and almost approaches cuteness. Already-coupled Glenn (Will Forte) and Kate (Lucy Punch) even get miffed when they’re not included and, indeed, the movie missteps by keeping the very funny Forte and Punch out of much of the proceedings: their wedding-day seething about their exclusion gets some of the movie’s biggest laughs.
Many of the other laughs—chuckles more than guffaws, but plentiful—spring from dialogue and attitude. A Good Old Fashioned Orgy isn’t much more explicit than many R-rated comedies of the past few years, but it is more sex-positive, and less squeamish about the idea of actually Doing It. Most of today’s comedies, even the vulgar ones, show individuals realizing that casual sex is not as good as they thought, and that commitment and monogamy are far more desirable (see: the sex-saturated-yet-chaste Hall Pass).
Even as it eschews straight romance and chastity, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy has a wistful tone, well managed by writer-directors Alex Gregoy and Peter Hyuck, who display a nuanced-sitcom sensibility you might expect from Larry Sanders and King of the Hill vets. When Eric and the rest of the gang do feel hesitation, it’s both sympathetic and logistically sound, not dictated by a moralistic screenwriter. And Sudeikis, so neutralized in Hall Pass, turns out to be the perfect tour guide into the world of amateur one-off orgies. Where Murray or Chase would detach from the situation, his enthusiasm seems genuine but never creepy.