The Opposite of Sex (1998)

D: Don Roos
S: Christina Ricci, Martin Donovan, Lisa Kudrow

Quite funny musings on the state of human relationships in the late twentieth century, centring on selfish 16 year old Christina Ricci. She plays the amoral half sister of homosexual teacher Martin Donovan, who arrives unbidden at his home one day and throws his life into total disarray, first seducing his lover (Ivan Sergei) then proceeding to push him further and further into chaos as this one act sets up a chain reaction which threatens his career, his life, and eventually his sense of himself. Meanwhile bitter Lisa Kudrow, sister of Donovan's deceased life partner, nurses deep-seated feelings which explode in response to the situation. She seems to be attracted to Donovan, though her affections are revealed to be a transference of her sense of loss about the death of her brother. She, in turn, is romanced by soft-spoken Sherrif Lyle Lovett, who is at the centre of the series of investigations which result from Ricci's taking to the road with Donovan's lover after abruptly announcing her pregnancy.

Despite the veneer of Generation X postmodern trendiness (and a certain amount of pro-gay action which has been picked up on by some critics as a rejoinder to the bogus In & Out), this is essentially a teenage angst movie of the type we've seen many times since the 1950s. It deliberately defies convention in its refusal to make its protagonist sympathetic, and it explicitly parodies the formula of such movies (down to its savvy voice-over and several false leads), but it ultimately boils down to the same set of issues about how people relate to one another through sex, romance, and friendship, and the consequences of any and all of it. It is slick, fast-paced and well acted though, so it proves a worthwhile trip to the well.

Ricci continues the strange trajectory she's been on since Mermaids with another smarter-than-thou character. This time however she is sexed up to the max, exuding a predatory nineties proactive femininity which is played for black comic laughs. She carries the part nicely and provides the film with its engine, although Donovan seems to occupy more of the screen time and certainly gives it its emotional heart. Kudrow is impressively uptight in support, and has a number of sharp one-liner put-downs which raise a smile. William Scott Lee and Johnny Galecki are entertaining in support, with Galecki at the receiving end of a particularly nasty outburst by Donovan revolving around body piercing which is hilarious.

Yet the film keeps the audience distant because of its smarminess, and when it does go for genuine warmth, it seems hollow. It lacks the authenticity of the likes of Slums of Beverly Hills, and while its brutality about hypocracy and social masks might be read as honest and direct, its desperation to stay one step ahead of the game with its tongue-in-cheek approach seems a tad disengenuous. Donovan does well to both avoid cliché and retain our interest in a mostly subdued performance, but only his character seems genuine and wins our trust. The rest is all so much 'nudge nudge wink wink' that it can become irritating.

This won't matter to its intended audience, of course, who will most likely empathise with Ricci's superficial attutides, even though those attitudes are in fact subverted by the dramatic resolution. Still, for what it is, it works quite well. It is funny and generally well written, with some unexpected moments amid the familiar ones (though the voice-to-audience device is far from original, even when it tricks, misleads and cajoles). It's not necessarily everyone's idea of a good time, (those for whom its sexual politics are objectionable are practically extinct now, but there might be some who would find it offensive in general terms) but for those able to tune in to its particular vibe, it can be seen to fit in a long tradition of similarly themed movies dating back to Jame Dean's primal scream in Rebel Without a Cause which signalled the emergence of a teen sensibility in direct opposition to the values of the generation which preceeded it. It doesn't have quite that level of resonance, but it fills a gap.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.