I’ve been both curious about and terrified of the Garry Marshall BDSM comedy Exit to Eden for some time now, but never worked up the nerve to actually watch it until late last week. Then there were just too many recent prompts to ignore them all. Not only did we at Swampflix cover the more questionable career choices of Exit to Eden’s stars Rosie O’Donnell & Dan Aykroyd last week, but the entire pop culture world was flooded with endless news & buzz for the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey film, the first mainstream Hollywood BDSM film since the “erotic thriller” genre’s heyday in the mid-90s. In addition to selling absurd numbers of pre-order tickets before it’s even released, 50 Shades is also receiving a huge amount of flak from the BDSM community for its portrayal of an abusive relationship that misses the point of kink entirely. I thought, “Well, it can’t miss the point any more than Exit to Eden” and finally gave the film a watch. I might be right.
Exit to Eden may not confuse kink with abuse the same way 50 Shades has been accused of, but it still manages to be insulting to the BDSM community. This is a world where people are into kink because they were spanked as children, need therapy, and can’t manage lasting, meaningful relationships. This is a world where dominatrixes go into business because they were emotionally manipulated by men, but all they really want is for the right Australian stud to seduce them so they can put down the whip forever. The film’s head dominatrix (played by Dana Delany) confesses, “I like to cuddle & giggle. After a hard day of smacking people, I like to cuddle.” This is a world where plain old cunnilingus is treated as just as outrageously adventurous as a violent flogging. When a character facetiously delivers the line, “‘Alternative lifestyle’ is just a phrase deviants use to cover up their sex lives,” you have to wonder if the film were being more sincere than it lets on.
There’s also a dismissive, above-it-all tinge to the “jokes” delivered by Rosie O’Donnell’s narrator/undercover cop that would make you think the movie wasn’t at all titillated by its kinkier proceedings, but it totally is! The shameless/outlandish erotica of the Anne Rice source material frequently pokes through O’Donnell’s snark and makes for a really uncomfortable clash of sentiments. On one hand you have O’Donnell basically shouting “Get a load of these freaks!” every few seconds and on the other there are long, leering scenes involving Dana Delany spanking a male sub & trying on bondage gear for the first time while soft rock plays in the background. It’s about as tone-deaf and self-contradictory as you would imagine a Garry Marshall BDSM comedy would be.
Marshall is essentially King of the Hokey. His Happy Days/Odd Couple/Mork & Mindy roots don’t exactly read like the perfect résumé for a sleazy Anne Rice adaptation. As fascinating as Exit to Eden is in a “I can’t believe someone actually made this” context, it’s rarely actually funny. The cheery pop music & corny gags are so violently at war with the sensuality they share space with that it’s hard to imagine who the intended audience was. There are a few jokes that pay off, like when Marshall’s own off-screen voice demands that his mistress pay him attention (if you’re familiar with his voice it’s easy to imagine why that’d be amusing). Dan Aykroyd is also surprisingly funny considering the material he’s working with. He’s in full, uptight Dragnet mode here, which makes gags involving leaf blowers, vibrators, and rumors about his impressively large penis land beautifully. Still, most jokes in Exit to Eden made me roll my eyes so hard I was afraid I’d finish the film legally blind.
It’s okay that this comedy isn’t actually funny, though, because there’s enough inherent weirdness in its clashing concepts that genuine humor might have been a distraction. Take, for instance, the fact that Aykroyd & O’Donnell both separately don bondage gear for the camera. If you were actually laughing during those scenes, it might release the emotionally-scarring tension that feels similar to walking in on your aunt & uncle’s “play-time” without knocking first. If the jokes were actually funny, you might laugh over the horrendously inaccurate New Orleans accents that plague the film’s final scenes. No, the best way to “enjoy” the horror of Garry Marshall’s & Anne Rice’s dueling personalities refusing to cohesively mix in a sex “comedy” is to experience it in abject silence, mouth agape, eyes unable to fully convince your brain that the images before you are actually a real thing that very real people brought into this unfortunately real world. Exit to Eden should not exist, but it most definitely does. It’s not a successful comedy, but it is an undeniably memorable one.