Technology has brought people closer by allowing them to lie. Some of my best relationships, and some of my best friends, are people I’ve never met in real life. Even having to make reference to “in real life” says volumes about where we’ve gotten to as a society. There exists an entire cottage industry based around phone sex and cyber sex. For dollars a minute, you can have a dream-lover whisper sweet Mariahs into your ear while you pleasure yourself. Even if that lover is obviously a lie. Easier with Practice takes that lie and spins it into a fascinating and complex love story about a lonely aspiring writer and his infatuation with a girl who exists only as a voice on a telephone. The layers infused in the telling and the excellent characters imply a practiced hand, but this is writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s first feature. Alvarez explores all the complications and implications of a romance communicated entirely through phone sex without ever relying on cartoonish punchlines or broad gimmicks. It’s just as touching and quirky and beautiful as Secretary. And it’s also a movie you’ll probably never get a chance to see theatrically thanks to the desiccated and outmoded MPAA and their unconscionable prejudices because it’s been tainted with a bullshit NC-17 rating.
With his hand-stapled book of short stories called “Things People Do To Each Other,” Davy Mitchell (Brian Geraghty, The Hurt Locker) hops into a station wagon with his brother Sean (Kel O’Neill) on a book tour through the Southwest. From strip mall bookstore to college open mics, Davy mutters a few passages from his book for politely clapping audiences. The brothers’ twentysomething dreams of a Kerouacian experience take that quick shit turn into sleeping on a mattress they found on the side of the road, living off PB&J and beef jerky, and the occasional luxury of a motel room and a few beers. One night, the hotel phone rings and Davy finds himself listening to the sultry-voiced Nicole (Katie Aselton), who aggressively insists he get her off. Davy, a bespectacled milquetoast, thinks it’s a prank set up by his brother and tries to talk his way out of it. Nicole chuckles and claims if he isn’t into the whole ring-a-ding-dong all he need do is simply hang up the phone.
But he doesn’t. Of course, he doesn’t. He engages in some furtive masturbation, the two exchanging the usual “touch yourself/what are you wearing” rhetoric that any $3.99 scrip-tease chanteuse has at her disposal. After release, they say their goodbyes. But then Nicole calls the number back in the middle of the night. Davy answers, over his grumbling brother’s protests, and tells her to call him later on his cell. And thus begins their crazy courtship. Davy never knows when or where Nicole will call him, and since she blocks the number, he has no way of ever reaching her. He has to wait by the phone until he can steal a minute — sleeping in the back of the station wagon outside the motel so he can stroke himself to her voice away from prying eyes. But again, the entire premise that he’s masturbating in the middle of the night in the backseat of a station wagon in a parking lot to a girl who doesn’t want to wake her boyfriend is one of the behavioral complexities that impressed me with the movie.
Davy knows nothing about Nicole other than what she chooses to tell him. Which is of course the whole point. When Davy asks her what she looks like, she asks him what he sees. Davy envisions her as one of the busty beauties from the cover of a cheap dimestore romance paperback. Nicole’s answer is “No Comment.” But Easier With Practice isn’t all about finding out what Nicole looks like. Nicole admits to having a boyfriend, which makes Davy feel guilty while simultaneously adding that extra layer of enticement and danger to the situation. The relationship with Nicole begins to develop past the phone sex. Davy and Nicole begin talking about their lives, their days, and their problems. It becomes for Davy just as real as speaking with a woman face-to-face, only easier and better because the fantasy is always better than the reality. And the entire time, Nicole is just a lie perpetrated through a telephone. And yet, maybe not. Our cynicism as an audience — that some pencil-necked pencil pusher is never going to get the cheerleader, that she’s probably some horrible trailer mom gabbing into a headset mic, that her must-have defect is unspeakable — is what makes Alvarez’s storytelling so effective. Nicole’s a voice in our heads, too, and we’re building our own prejudices against the situation.
As if this weren’t compelling enough, Alvarez is able to interweave this thread through Davy’s real life. He has a temp job, a cramped apartment littered with Post-It notes, and occasional interaction with his jagoff brother. Davy’s not some sort of scribbling man-troll whiling away his lonely existence under a bridge. He’s a decent enough looking fella. He’s had some girlfriends but they’ve never gone well, which is why Nicole is better than the real thing, even if that real thing exists only at his own fingertips. After one of his book readings, Davy sits drunk at a bar staring at the phone while a pretty brunette comes up and practically offers herself up on a plate. Davy blows off her flirtation with his awkward social gracelessness, snatching up the phone when Nicole rings. It may seem obvious on paper, but when presented as it is in the film, it’s so compelling.
Nicole begins to destroy Davy, to become his entire life, especially when the truth is revealed. Davy goes out on a date with Samantha (Marguerite Moreau), an old flame rekindled at Sarah’s birthday party, and then has to deal with Nicole’s petty jealousy — which is nowhere near as haggard as Davy’s outright hostility. Davy finds love, but in his mind, he’s already got it with a girl who won’t give him her number, won’t ever agree to meet him, and interjects herself into his life at her own whims. Everything comes to a head in a fucking outstanding dinner party scene where the two brothers and their dates decide to play Two Truths and a Lie. Which is practically the tagline for the movie.
Every character is acted spectacularly. Jeanette Knox’s Sarah could easily have been a shrew or annoying, a stock character from the Real Housewives of Whositwhatchit, but she’s even more interesting as the girl who’s nice to her boyfriend’s brother in that “in-law-to-be” social nicety. Marguerite Moreau plays Samantha as a frothy blend of sultry and sweet. I can’t describe Katie Aselton’s performance without giving too much away, but let’s say her Nicole was so strong I’m considering actually giving her directorial debut The Freebie a shot. Kel O’Neill is such a natural douchebag brother, it reminded me of all my fights with my own — shoving matches and fist fights that ended because we were gonna be late for a movie. Every moment is like Sean just straightened out of a kegstand and realized, “Holy shit, I’m almost 30.”
It’s Brian Geraghty who simply makes this picture as good as it is. His nerdy, mawkish turn as Davy — with his tiny glasses and cardigan sweaters spewing tripe, his uncomfortable mannerisms around everyone, his balance between victim and hero — is astounding. The film never would have worked without the subtle nuances Geraghty infused. The Nabokovian truth’s that Davy’s a social misfit in a perverse relationship, but for the film to work, you have to like him somewhat, and Geraghty makes you like him.
Easier With Practice needs to be seen, if only so you can share in my outrage. There’s no nudity, no graphic sex — other than the knuckle shuffling off screen or underneath a bouncy blanket — and no violence. Yet, the MPAA decided to slap the sticker of death on this film by giving it the dreaded NC-17 rating for “a sequence of explicit sexual dialogue.” Ben Stiller jacked off to an underwear ad just as graphically as Davy does and then answered the door with jizz dangling from his ear. Jason Segel walks around screen with his penis is full view for extended periods of time. In David Cronenberg’s Spider, a character is given a handjob and then ejaculate is flung at the camera. Countless characters in all permutations of the American Pie films have described any number of deviant sexual acts and have pantomimed oral, anal, and vaginal sex with their cum faces all aglow. The graphic dialogue in question is pretty rote porno-plaid patterned: “stick your fingers in yourself, oh, I’m gonna come.” And yet, according to the puritanical witchhunters at the MPAA, this somehow deserves an NC-17. There’s an underlying bias at work, which I’m afraid to even imply, as it will completely ruin the film. But it’s so despicable and repulsive, I’m frankly shocked and appalled. Then again, thanks to pressures from family groups, the MPAA has continued to prove that it’s about two autoerotic asphyxiation notches away from Fox News for fair and balanced. Why the film industry doesn’t self-police in-house instead of letting this blue-haired conservative gestapo blackline artistry is beyond me.