Every now and then a movie comes out that is based on a book that everyone said was “unfilmable.” From Lolita, to Naked Lunch, to Cloud Atlas, just a few of the books some said would never make it to the screen. And then we have Alex Comfort’s 1972 sex manual The Joy of Sex. Unfilmable? Well, yeah…it’s an instructional book. I mean nobody makes movies based on the instruction manual for their stereo either. Granted, this is about sex…and sex sells. I guess that’s what Paramount Pictures figured when they shelled out big bucks to secure the film rights to the book simply so they could use the title. The result was 1984’s Joy of Sex.
The film focuses on the horny seniors at Richard M. Nixon High School. In an early scene we see someone painting over the school sign so it reads “Hard On High School.” At the center of our story is Leslie Hindenberg (Michelle Meyrink), daughter of the school’s own Coach Hindenberg (Christopher Lloyd). One day, Leslie goes to the doctor to have a mole near her breast checked out. The doctor assures her it’s a harmless spot, but when she overhears him talking to a weeping nurse distraught over her dying plant, Leslie thinks that she’s the one whose days are numbered. Now, she is determined to lose her virginity before she dies.
Of course, the guys at school are all sex obsessed as well, but they are a bit more interested in the new girl, Liz (Colleen Camp). Unknown to them, Liz is actually a narc on assignment at the school. Leslie does eventually manage a few dates with some of the guys, but doesn’t succeed in actually going all the way. She even attempts a rendezvous with a creepy local TV newsman. Meanwhile, things on the virginity front have not been going well for one of her classmates, Alan (Cameron Dye). Gee, do you think these two might end up together by the time the credits roll?
Joy of Sex is a movie that has very little going for it. It’d say it’s good points can be counted on two fingers. First up is Michelle Meyrink in the lead. Meyrink was the ultimate when it came to geeky but cute girls in the 80’s. Her role here is nowhere near the greatness she achieved as Jordan in Real Genius, but she’s still got that likeable awkwardness to her. It’s just a shame that her character has no respect for herself and that the “I must have sex before I die” plot device depends on a moment of uber stupidity on Leslie’s part. The other bright spot is Ernie Hudson as the school’s principal. Let’s face it, he’s Ernie Hudson! You can never have enough Ernie Hudson!
The rest of the movie is an incoherent mess. It was directed by Martha Coolidge, the director of films like Valley Girl and Real Genius. Obviously, something went very wrong. To say the film has a “story” is being generous as it just seems to wander around for an hour and a half. The jokes are not funny…case in point: when Leslie tells one of her male classmates that she’ll pick him up in her “vulva…uh Volvo.” Some moments are downright awkward. The scene in which Leslie goes to see the doctor features the physician, presumably a pediatrician based on the kiddie decor in his office, staring at the young woman’s breasts and coming awful close to fondling her. I realize this was 31 years ago, but I think this still would’ve been pretty creepy in the 80’s. As if this movie weren’t misguided enough, it also commits the sin of wasting the talents of Christopher Lloyd. Unforgivable.
In the end, the bizarre production history of Joy of Sex is a hundred times more interesting the finished film. Supposedly, in the late 70’s the job of writing a screenplay for this film was given to Charles Grodin who was told it could be about anything. He ended up writing a script about a writer struggling to adapt the famous sex manual into a movie. That script was rejected and later sold to another studio to become another forgotten film, Movers and Shakers. At one point John Belushi was slated to star in a version written by John Hughes and to be directed by Penny Marshall, but Belushi died shortly before production was to start. I’m not sure if this would’ve been better or worse. What we are left with is a film version of an unfilmable book which probably should’ve stayed unfilmed.