Centred round a geeky fantasist’s phone-sex relationship, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s Easier With Practice flirts with the danger of wet dreams coming true.
Dance With A Stranger by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be VERY BIG spoilers
The anecdote that hangs over all talk of Easier With Practice like an unwashed sock is the film’s genesis in a GQ Magazine article by Davy Rothbart. Entitled What Are You Wearing? the essay provides the convenient truth for Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s debut feature about a short story writer who heads into the book tour wilderness with his brother in tow. It’s hard to imagine sensitive nerd Davy, brought to life by a charismatically awkward Brian Geraghty, making it into the pages of a men’s magazine, but Easier With Practice is an adaptation of Rothbart’s truthfully tall tale with its own story to tell. And while it may at times strain at the seams of its factual straitjacket, as a road movie with a twist it’s a long way off a straight story.
With its moiré rosette close-ups of muscled men and unbodiced blondes, the opening montage of pixellated romance novel covers says it all. It’s the prologue to Davy’s erotic adventures in fantasyland. And yet, he hardly seems the type – the penniless author touting his rather thin anthology of short stories to half-empty book readings in New Mexico and fretting about the money he and his brother Sean are spending on motel after motel (they certainly can’t afford a hotel). But it’s not long before Sean’s lampooning Davy’s copy of Mills & Boon, opening the floodgates to a tsunami of snobbish questions – “Why in gawd’s name is a wannabe writer reading erotic fiction?!” and “Aren’t they just for lonely, undersexed women?” (Except in India, apparently where men make up 20% of the readership.) Well, lonely and undersexed – check. In fact, Davy’s as underdeveloped as a doe-eyed fawn, just ripe for a sexual fantasy of his own.
Cue Nicole. A mellifluous Southern Belle, who phones Davy up very much out of the blue. At first Davy’s reluctant, but in an unswerving, fifteen-minute scene of dirty talk and masturbation, it’s not long before he’s hooting NC-17 rated obscenities down the blower as they make love in his imagination. Turning a blind eye to the all-absorbent sports sock, it’s a tremendous moment. For the virgin Davy, it’s the closest he’s ever come to sex. And it’s not long before Davy abandons the twin motel room to take up permanent residence in the station wagon. Spanking the sock monkey.
But Easier With Practice has little prurient interest in gasoline-scented erotica. Instead, Davy’s preference for “phone-fucking” is above all a question of safe sex. The preppy Ivy Leaguer finds it hard to talk to women, unable to live up to what they want. He’s an adolescent jumble of secrets and disguise, even finding it hard to face up to himself in writing. His book Things People Do To Each Other, with its narrated scene of brothers and phone calls, is most definitely not about him. Davy doesn’t possess the easy sexuality of his brother, who has no qualms in cheating on his girlfriend with a pick-up from a co-ed bar. For Davy, away from the confidence-sapping mating rituals of barhawkers, phone-sex is love in a warmer climate where he’s free to be who he is. He’s liberated by the absolute disconnect with reality – sex without the hassle of other people. But still, Davy’s no neanderthal. And he likes to chat a little after, his small-talk with Nicole like a virtual cuddle. And as they converse well into the night, counselling each other on careers and relationships, it’s not long before they’re well and truly connected.
Finally, reality breaks through into this virtual world, but not as you’d expect. It’s not Davy’s petty jealousy of Nicole’s boyfriend Aaron lurking in the shadows nor Sean’s inquisitiveness, but rather a desire by Davy to make it real. That’s why he tells his brother about his relationship with Nicole, and why he decides to meet her. He’s advised against it from all sides. And just like Alvarez’s cunning sleight of hand, undercutting Davy’s sexual ambiguity with his trucker mouth, three-day stubble and geeky gaucheness, Sean’s suggestion of a lonely housewife with a thousand cats again bolsters the indefatigable current of Davy’s unquestioned if meandering straightness. It’s an uncertainty that crescendoes imperceptibly. In Sean’s revelation in a game of Two Truths And A Lie that Davy once kissed a guy or in his stammering relationship with flickering love interest Samantha which falters at the second pass.
Unable to pass from talk to action with Samantha and abandoned by Nicole, Davy’s confidence is at an all-time low. Yet the despair into which Davy descends still comes as a surprise, Alvarez not quite centring Davy’s sexuality squarely enough. But when Nicole calls again and agrees to meet him, Davy heads to Albuquerque, groomed and clean-shaven, only to be stood up again by the timid Nicole, the camera’s blurring in and out of focus echoing Davy’s awkward nervousness. That he should meet Aaron in her place the following day comes as a complete surprise, a young black queen with a talent for impersonating women and a history of seducing men by phone. They’re both fantasists who prefer the fantasy of a phone relationship to the awkward reality of sexuality and sex; the one out but in in small-town America, the other too frightened to even carve out a sexual space for himself in the real world. And as Davy speaks to Aaron for the first time, their floundering restaurant conversation echoes their opening phone-sex overtures like a minor-key refrain – despite initial resistance, Davy can’t quite bring himself to hang up. Nor can he promise anything more than a tentative embrace and an ambiguous glance across the parking lot.
With a star-making performance by Brian Geraghty, all-American but barely recognisable from his role as a marine in Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker, Easier With Practice is a fascinating road journey across the underexposed underbelly of American sexuality. But its draughtsmanly design of neon signs and graphic graffiti never quite enough to forgive the occasional blurring of faces or ungainly narrative manoeuvres in the dark. The Kerouacian romanticism of the road movie is underplayed, and Davy’s relationship with his brother neglected as they teeter on the balance of fraternal oneupmanship. Their power-play of gruff grunting only finally dissolves when Davy decides not to show his hand in Two Truths And A Lie and reveal Sean’s infidelities to fiancée Sarah. It may require some retrofitting with hindsight, but Easier With Practice is beautifully understated. And Alvarez succeeds in creating a truly blinding ending, forcing us to reinterpret all we’ve seen. Like Davy, he’s perhaps not yet fully formed and still lacking in confidence, but he does a cracking sleight of hand.
Easier With Practice is released in the UK on 3rd December 2010