Movies About Porn Shouldn't Be This Boring

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About Cherry is yet another failed attempt to nail what's interesting about modern flesh films.

about cherry 615.jpg
IFC Films

Does mainstream film still have anything interesting to say about porn? You'd think so, if judging by the number of movies made about it in recent years.

A sampling. In the Shock-Us-With-Porn's-Dangerous-Quotidian-Baseness Department, we have Rated X (2000), Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy (2001), Wonderland (2003), The Girl Next Door (2004), and Inside Deep Throat (2005). In the Saucy-"It's-a-Living"-Ironies-From-the-XXX-Backstage Department, we have Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) and Finding Bliss (2009), not to mention corollary fare like the recent For a Good Time, Call ... (2012) and odd fantasias like Orgazmo (1997). And any psychic nuances left unstroked might yet be found in two upcoming biopics about Deep Throat's Linda Lovelace, Inferno and Lovelace.

Films about porn that get at deeper truths, though, are scarce. P.T. Anderson's memorable Boogie Nights (1997) leaps to mind, but it's worth noting that it took years for Anderson to digest the zeitgeist of '70s/'80s wide-screen wantonness. And the picture's pathos really rested on pitifully endearing characters like John C. Reilly's sad-eyed hanger-on Reed Rothchild and Heather Graham's crazily blissed-out Rollergirl. You might say it was a period-pinpointing, outsider-group portrait dressed as (or undressed as) a movie about porn.

Maybe it will take a decade or two before our own age's digital down and dirty gets its definitive take. The Internet is fast, but cultural epiphany won't be rushed. That, anyway, is what's suggested by the disappointing new feature About Cherry, which sees theatrical release this week.

If the film is intended to shock in its casual frankness, it's too late to the game

Leading up to its festival debut earlier this year, the art-house set had been practically panting over the film's bona fides. Cowritten by literary entrepreneur Stephen Elliott, founder of therumpus.net, and porn star Lorelei Lee, About Cherry was shot partly at San Francisco's Kink.com studios, a former armory building that serves as a veritable 250,000-square-foot skin-flick Cinecitta. Featuring talent blended from Lee's colleagues and indie-film lights like James Franco, Lili Taylor, and former Rollergirl herself, Graham, it looked poised to be a Boogie Nights for our time, tricking out a character study as bona-fide authentic gawk at the Prurient States of America. Franco's pursuit of a parallel documentary project about Kink.com further fueled the speculative fires.

Sadly, though, for all its location cred, Cherry is, of all things, dramatically limp—turgid only in dialogue and acting. It has nothing new to say about body and soul's eternally uneasy symbiosis, or about love and friendship, or even about the recently over-discussed if not untrue pornification of America. The film might have aspired to originality, if not quality, as bold as its PR if it had paid more heed to its surroundings. Instead, it murmured its safe word and meandered off into a melodramatic mediocrity.

Cherry is the nom de paywall of one Angelina (former Abercrombie and Fitch model and Gossip Girl guest star Ashley Hinshaw), who flees her alcoholic, manipulative mother Phyllis (Taylor), Phyllis's menacing boyfriend, and an irritating, exploitative wannabe rocker amour in Long Beach for the bright red lights of San Francisco. Waiting tables at a strip club, she's drawn to the bigger bucks and illicit thrills of porn at a Kink.com-like studio, which is here a company called Bod. Angelina catches the eye of both a rich coke-head lawyer, Frances (Franco), and porn-director Margaret (Graham). While both of them try to flatter Angelina out of her clothes and inhibitions, she ignores her old chum Andrew (Dev Patel, playing somewhat coy counterpart to his Anwar character in the British TV series Skins), who tries to sort out both his sexual orientation and his feelings for Angelina.

Hinshaw is a sexy, endearing blend of savvy and vulnerable. And Graham, with her preternaturally large eyes, is charmingly seductive in Margaret's distinctively earnest-yet-calculating way. But Franco's talents are wasted here on the baldly scripted Frances, a sallow-looking, hypocritical, art-loving boy-man trying to escape his overbearing museum-board doyenne of a mother. Taylor too is put to poor use in a thinly drawn caricature of an irresponsible mum. And the screenplay's bungled attempt at sophisticated friend/lover libido logic thwarts the talented Patel as he attempts to move beyond his status as Angela's hapless friend without benefits.

To its credit, About Cherry avoids the involving but predictable and shrill moralizing of old-school, girl-run-amok pictures such as Paul Schraeder's Hardcore (1979) and Bob Fosse's Star 80 (1983). The film doesn't rule out the possibility that exotic sex, exhibitionism, and voyeurism can be, of all things, fun, even as the story normalizes the new porn industrial complex's bureaucracy, complete with paperwork-laden hiring interviews, crabby java-slurping directors, and producers trying to boost productivity. Never mind the naughty nurse and dominatrix-cop setups of Cherry's scenes—one can almost imagine Steve Carrel as a buffoon version of Kink.com's founder Peter Acworth in a TV sitcom called Deep Office.

But for all its contemporary revelatory pretensions, About Cherry stumbles over the time-honored tripwires of a gawky plot and tired performances, as though porn-acting standards had lowered the indie high bar instead of being elevated by it. The same holds true for the writing, which sounds like it should be part of a bad porn setup even when it's part of the framing story:

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Alexander C. Kafka has written about books and the arts for The Washington PostThe Boston Globe, and The Chicago Tribune.

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