Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1972
Stars : Woody Allen (Victor / Fabrizio / Fool / Sperm), John Carradine (Dr. Bernardo), Lou Jacobi (Sam), Louise Lasser (Gina), Anthony Quayle (The King), Tony Randall (Operator), Lynn Redgrave (The Queen), Burt Reynolds (Switchboard), Gene Wilder (Dr. Ross)
Woody Allen borrowed the title of "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)" from a sexual self-help book by Dr. David Reuben, which was popular in the sexually liberated sixties and early seventies. There is little relation between Allen's movie and the book itself--neither achieves what the title seems to promise (but then again, what could?)
However, Allen does use the book's structure of asking and then answering potentially embarrassing sexual questions by re-positing a half-dozen of the question on title cards throughout the movie, and then using a variety of comic vignettes to answer them in his own unique way. The questions posed and (sort of) answered by the movie include, "Do aphrodisiacs work?"; "What is sodomy?"; "Are transvestites homosexuals?"; and "What goes on during ejaculation?"
As is typical with films set up as a series of unrelated skits, the quality veers wildly, from near comic genius to sophomoric bathroom humor to complete misfires. The comedy itself is mostly farce and outright slapstick, but there are a few Woody-ish asides that are more in line with his post-"Annie Hall" work. The problem with movies like "Everything You Always Wanted to Know ..." is that the hits are dead-on and the duds clunk with resounding force. Therefore, when the movie is over (and it ends rather abruptly, almost like Allen just ran out of jokes), you're not sure whether or not you liked it because there is such disparity between the good and the bad. However, even if the movie is uneven, it has enough vintage Woody moments and inspired comedy to make it worth watching at least once.
To answer the first question about aphrodisiacs, Allen stages a hilarious semi-parody of "Hamlet," where he plays a painfully unfunny court jester in the court of a powerful King (Anthony Quayle) and his beautiful Queen (Lynn Redgrave). When his father's ghost informs him that he has to have sex with the Queen, Allen has the local sorcerer whip up a powerful aphrodisiac and gives it to the Queen (he gets by her guards by telling them it's her morning orange juice, although smoke is billowing out of the cup). The answer to the question is, yes, aphrodisiacs do work, but that doesn't matter if the object of one's desire is wearing a iron locked chastity belt.
The film then veers into the "sodomy" arena with a funny by overlong story about Dr. Ross (Gene Wilder), whose life is slowly destroyed when he falls in love with a sheep named Daisy. The scenes where Ross's wife first catches him caressing a lamb's wool sweater and later discovers in bed with Daisy (wearing a garter belt and stockings, no less) are classics because they're done with such ironic seriousness; unfortunately, the skit itself runs a little too long on a its one-joke premise.
The same goes for a later skit that seeks to answer whether or not sex therapists and researchers are valid scientists. The short answer to that is no, as Allen gives us a psychotic sex researcher named Dr. Bernardo (John Carradine), whose dungeon laboratory resembles that of Dr. Frankenstein on a bad day. When the laboratory explodes, it unleashes what is probably the movie's most infamous and memorable scene: a giant, milk-squirting female breast (Allen guesses the size at 4,000 in an X cup) that then proceeds to ravage the countryside like "The Blob," complete with oozing sound effects.
The two best sequences in the "Everything You Always Wanted to Know ... " are also the two most overtly cinematic. The first is an dead-on parody of snooty Italian and French movies that were all the rage in the late sixties and early seventies. Mocking both the acting and directing styles of self-serious European filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni and Frederico Fellini, this skit features Allen as Fabrizio, an ultra-suave Italian playboy who marries an apparently frigid woman.
It is only later that he realizes the only way she can enjoy sex is if they do it in public places, which leads to a number of hilarious situations in department stores, on rooftops, and under tables in restaurants. However, the real hilarity in this sequence is watching Allen set-up the highly stylized, self-conscious shots and then stroll through them in his chic Euro-trash clothes and sunglasses, smoking cigarettes, and speaking a highly-accented form of pseudo-Italian with accompanying subtitles.
The last sequence is also one of the funniest and most talked-about, as Allen attempts to explain in cinematic terms what goes on in the male body during sex. He stages the body like a giant computerized factory, with technicians in the brain, the stomach, the eyes, the ears, and ... well, other places. This sequence features a brief cameo by Burt Reynolds as one of the brain control room operators ("Proceed with erection; all systems go!") and Allen himself playing a self-doubting sperm who isn't sure whether or not he wants to go through with ejaculation ("What if he's masturbating? I might end up on the ceiling").
It isn't too hard to see from this brief overview that the film is, indeed, quite tasteless. But, of course, that's the point, and the movie represents tastelessness with a purpose. By staging these somber sexual questions and then answering them with ridiculous farces, Allen is mocking the entire arena of sexual self-help, epitomized at the time by Dr. Reuben's book. Sexual anxiety and dysfunction are hallmarks of Allen's writing, and here he argues that sex and comedy are (or, at least, should be) synonymous. After all, this is the man who said, "Sex between a man and a woman can be wonderful, provided you can get between the right man and the right woman."
Clinical self-help books about sex are the antithesis of Allen's style, which is why he can parody them so freely. Although "Everything You Always Wanted to Know ..." is not a solid piece of filmmaking and it is hardly one of Allen's best farcical films, it is still an interesting early work. For those who have no sense of humor about sex, Allen's work here will be seen as juvenile and unfunny, perhaps even insulting. But, for those who appreciate Allen's sensibilities and understand the inherent humor in just about all human activities--especially sex--there is much to be enjoyed here.
©1998 James Kendrick