Sex Drive (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sex Drive Poster

Sometimes, even a hardened critic can be surprised by a movie. Based on the promotional material, Sex Drive appears headed down the worn track followed by a long line of formulaic teenage road comedies. I won't bother listing the titles - those with a fondness for the genre know them by heart. Suffice it to say, it's not an impressive lineage. Sex Drive starts out much as one might suspect from a film with that title and, for a while, it meanders deeper into familiar territory, seemingly on cruise control. Then something unexpected happens. The characters begin developing personalities. The situations start going for more than just cheap laughs. It's as if John Hughes stole pages 30 through 110 of the Sean Anders/John Morris script and replaced it with something that has a heart in addition to gonads.

Liking and caring about characters in a movie like this is a foreign experience. Typically, teenage kids on a road trip end up as walking punch lines for one raunchy joke after another, most of which are predictable, unfunny, or both. By taking the time to develop Sex Drive's protagonists into something more, the film achieves two aims: it gives emotional resonance to the climax and it amps up the comedic success of many of its gags. Because the movie as a whole seems a little more mature and serious, its instances of outrageousness work better than they might in a something that never tries to be better than sophomoric. Admittedly, praise of this sort runs the risk of making Sex Drive sound more sophisticated than it is. Reduced to its essence, it's still a teenage road comedy. But it's one of the best I have seen in a long time - perhaps since Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing (with which it shares a few traits).

The movie begins with three teens approaching the end of their time in high school. Ian (Josh Zuckerman), Felicia (Amanda Crew), and Lance (Clark Duke) have been friends for a long time. It's not as platonic as it might seem, however. Ian harbors a crush on Felicia (one that is not reciprocated) and Felicia has romantic feelings for Lance (which also are not reciprocated). Meanwhile, Lance is concerned about his best friend's ongoing virginity and vows to help him rectify the undesirable condition. The solution comes when Ian's Internet "girlfriend" (the blond and busty Katrina Bowden) invites him to meet her face-to-face for a one-night stand. It's an offer Lance won't let Ian pass up. So, with Felicia in tow (it's a long story how and why she ends up in the car, but suffice it to say, she's there), the three begin the nine-hour drive from Chicago to Knoxville in a 1969 Pontiac GTO (stolen from Ian's brother). It goes without saying that the trip doesn't pass without incident.

Sex Drive never becomes a full-blown romantic comedy, but it gets close. There's enough secondary nudity and sex humor to keep us from forgetting what the movie is supposed to be, but the tangled relationships of Ian, Felicia, and Lance begin to take center stage. The film has some genuinely touching moments, such as a conversation between Ian and Lance where the latter acknowledges that he knows about Felicia's feelings for him but will never act upon them because he knows she has a place in Ian's heart. This is the kind of genuine scene one rarely finds in this sort of motion picture. (Lance then promptly fall for an Amish girl.)

The lead trio of actors display likeability and charm in handling their parts, which require everything from broad physical comedy to more substantive drama (with the former outweighing the latter). As competent as they are, however, two of the supporting players are more memorable. The first is James Marsden as Ian's testosterone-crazed brother, Rex. Marsden, who often plays laid-back characters, enjoys this opportunity to go a little nuts. Seth Green plays the Ezekiel the Amish car repairman who has returned to his community after spending some time in the world and claims that the thing he misses the most about being in a restricted community is "sarcasm." Needless to say, Green plays the part for fun, but it's not as broad a caricature as one might expect.

Once one realizes that this is, in fact, a romantic comedy, the ending becomes easy to divine, but destinations are never the point in road trip movies, and this is no exception. Sex Drive's first 30 minutes may lead one to suspect there's nothing new to be seen here, but it undergoes a transformation once the preliminaries have been dispensed with. John Hughes would be pleased - and so also might Judd Apatow.

Sex Drive (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2008-10-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1