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Just Doing It

For some couples, nothing beats frequent Sex With Strangers

So, uh, do you like Ron Jeremy movies?

Seriously. He's not actually in Sex With Strangers, but the film's appeal is inextricably linked with Jeremy's -- because if you enjoy checking out "the Hedgehog" in action, chances are you like watching average, not especially attractive people gettin' it on. You're probably the type of person who thinks the toned, surgically enhanced nymphos in most porn just don't seem that into it. And that's why you'll dig Sex With Strangers, essentially a porno with a whole bunch of plot thrown into the mix, in which the participants are ordinary folk who aren't faking the orgasms -- that, and there are no come shots (a major plus).

Yes, it's a documentary. But whereas many documentaries strive to educate, this one's more of an exercise in voyeurism. More astounding than the various couplings, positions and truly intimate moments we find ourselves watching is the knowledge that some guy with a camera was standing in the corner watching the entire time. Exhibitionism is a big part of the swinging scene that the film covers, but watching some of the more emotionally raw and intimate moments onscreen can be wince-inducing.

Directed by Joe and Harry Gantz, of HBO's popular Taxicab Confessions, Sex With Strangers follows three couples in the swinging scene, referred to by its participants as simply "the lifestyle." Mississippians Shannon and Gerard realized they were cheating on one another and decided to do so with other couples together so as to eliminate the whole dishonesty thing. Washingtonians Sara and Calvin don't actually swing together as much but rather seem like a dysfunctional coupling in which he just wants to get laid a lot and she'll do anything to hang onto him. Meanwhile, Virginians James and Theresa drive their motor home around the country, setting up in parking lots outside clubs where they can catch possible sex partners on the way out.

James and Theresa are by far the most fun, and you'll wish the film were just about them. James has one of those Southern accents so caricaturish that it's almost inherently funny, especially at moments such as the time he walks out on an orgy because "Ah wuz already bored to tears!" or opines of one girl "I'll bet she rides like a Cadillac on a tow-rope!" We also learn that he met his wife when he saw her working in a hospital cradling the genitals of a heart-surgery patient in a post-op ward while washing the man's butthole (this is a major turn-on, apparently).

Shannon and Gerard aren't all that compelling, except to the extent that she suffers from mental illness and he's wanting to have separate affairs. Meanwhile, they have a young son whom they try to keep blissfully unaware. Still, they are somewhat sympathetic, especially compared with Calvin, a selfish brat who neglects his longtime love Sara for another woman, Julie, but then sulks if Sara and Julie ever get it on without him. Sara seems in genuine distress the entire time -- and she claims it wasn't clear in the beginning that Calvin wanted to swing -- but it's hard to feel for someone who won't leave the sorry ass of the guy who no longer cares about her.

The filmmakers don't judge anyone -- that's our job. But they also don't press much further than simple eavesdropping. Want to know why most women in the scene are bisexual but none of the men ever seems to be? No answer here; hell, no question. How about the legality of clubs set up for swingers to simply go and have orgies? Gay bathhouses get shut down, so why not these? Why are there no equivalent places for singles? And these questions pale in the shadow of a much bigger one that only arises shortly before the end credits roll: How can it be legal to fire someone because you find out he or she is a swinger? It apparently happens a lot, but why? Maybe that's a different movie, but you can't help feeling that Sex With Strangers would be tighter and more valuable if it focused on just one of the couples (James and Theresa, of course) and went into the bigger picture a bit more. As it stands, there's some fine sex onscreen and some tense arguing, but not a whole lot more.

Not that there necessarily needs to be. For some folks, porn vérité is more than enough (though the nonsex scenes can be taxing). Easy turn-ons abound, especially for fans of nipple rings and tattoos. But enlightenment of any significance must be sought elsewhere.

 
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