To recap: Over the past couple of years, I have been keeping an eye out for Sex And Death 101, a movie reuniting Winona Ryder with Heathers scripter Daniel Waters, who would also be directing.
I know nothing of their relationship, but it seems to me there must be some bond forged by the fact that neither has ever topped that early collaboration, which I consider one of the more perfect movies of the past 20 years. Better they should work on something new than on the utterly unnecessary Heathers sequel they sometimes talk of drumming up.
My interest cooled somewhat when I saw Waters' directorial debut, Happy Campers, which didn't work.
And when Sex and Death 101 bypassed US theatrical release...well, I'd made my peace with the idea that the "never topping Heathers" thing was still true. But, it's Waters and Winona, and Waters had what sounded like an interesting story:
A man receives a list of the names not only of all the girls he's loved before...but all the girls he's going to love in the future.
So, when I saw it on the new releases shelf of my video store, it jumped into my hand immediately.
It is, in a word, disappointing.
Towards the end of his commentary track, the writer/director mentions Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut as "A deeply silly movie that I love," implying that Sex & Death is meant to be, at least in part, a parody of it.
Waters is right that Wide is silly, trouble is, what both movies have in common is that each thinks they're deeper than they are.
First of all, as a script it's not Waters best work. In my opinion, he starts on the wrong foot by concentrating on the wrong character: Roderick Blank, played by Simon Baker.
Roderick is the good-looking, successful man who receives the list.
The problem is Waters' script never really delves beneath the surface of his protagonist; so if that character seems unworthy of focus...you can see where the film is in for a rough go.
The needed contrast becomes apparent when Ryder enters the movie. She plays a siren nicknamed "Death Nell," infamous for seducing woman-beaters and other not-nice examples of my sex, then drugging them into a paralyzing coma. Leaving a graffiti-tag poetry couplet spray-painted on the wall.
Quick, who would you rather watch a movie about? Exactly. And it doesn't help that Baker is miscast. He's an attractive man, and in the rare moments in this film where his character is connecting with another human being, he brings his "A" game to the drama.
But based on this film (I haven't seen any of his other work), he can't play comedy. This is a problem.
Ryder can, but her role in the film is actually quite small--a few quick hits along the way, then the big climax.
For the rest of it, we're left with Rod and the women in his life. For the most part these are (well-cast and well-played) cameos.
This (left) is actress Jessica Kiper, for example, who is also known as the model Sugar.
BTW, is it me, or is that dog the most smug looking son-of-a-bitch you've ever seen in your life?
(Click to enlarge)
Pollyanna McIntosh...that can't possibly be her real name...and Natassia Malthe, above, play a hot lesbian couple--so gay they just have to sleep with Rod as soon as they get a good look at him.
I know, but wait, there's another lesbian stereotype to come.
A couple of the women do warrant special mentions (one for good reason, one not-so-much); it is probably not insignificant that neither of them play numbers on The List.
The Facts of Life's Mindy Cohn plays Roderick's lesbian secretary and "gal pal," Trixie. The character is very much the kind of stereotype that one of my goals in writing my Girlfriend's Boyfriend play/screenplay/novel was to counter.
"The gay best friend," in no way sexually threatening; hopelessly (and inexplicably) devoted to a dude. Which (among other things) makes me wish Waters and his casting director had thought a little harder about filling the role.
You feel like a louse putting her down, but the nicest thing I can say about Cohn's performance is that she's lost none of her gift for brilliant banter.
Think about it.
Leslie Bibb plays a girl who Roderick is horrified to find is not on the list. He wants her desperately, but she desperately wants to remain "just friends" with him.
Bibb (right) is definitely an up-and-comer (you may remember her as the Vanity Fair reporter in the slightly more successful movie Iron Man), but Waters wastes her here.
He does give her a good speech or two, though, before doing something really unpleasant to her and then topping that by threatening to do something even more so.
On the commentary track, Waters compares what he was trying to do, disdainfully, with American Pie, saying that film seemed as though it were made by people who'd never had sex.
I don't rank that film very highly either, but I immediately thought of an important distinction: It's about characters that have never had sex, and are quite literally going mad with want.
However, Waters does have a better feel for shooting nude scenes than the AP team, it must be said. For the most part the nudity here is realistically staged and non-exploitative (inasmuch as nudity in film can ever be non-exploitative, which is another topic for another post).
In scenes where you would reasonably expect a woman to be topless or naked, they are, but Waters can't really be accused of ogling them with his camera.
One possible exception was deliberately included in an attempt to distract an audience from a gratingly obvious plot point (didn't work, I saw it coming as soon as it was set up).
So: What we have here is a writer doing imperfect work for a director who doesn't have the experience yet to be able to perfect it. Unfortunately, they were one and the same man.
But as someone who wants to be a writer/director myself, is there a lesson in Sex & Death 101 for me?
Perhaps only that even with said imperfect script, an untried director, Waters was able to attract a cast of beautiful, but also gifted, actresses to do his bidding.
What the hell...