Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

THE OPPOSITE OF SEX (1998) ** 2/3

Written and directed by Don Roos. Photography, Hubert Taczanowski. Editing, David Codron. Production design, Michael Clausen. Costumes, Peter Mitchell. Music, Mason Daring. Producers, David Kirkpatrick, Michael Besman. Executive producers, Jim Lotti, Steve Danton, Cast: Christina Ricci (Dedee Truitt), Martin Donovan (Bill Truitt), Lisa Kudrow (Lucia), Lyle Lovett (Carl Tippett), Johnny Galecki (Jason), Ivan Sergei (Matt Mateo), William Scott Lee (Randy). A Sony Classics release. 100 minutes. Rated R. At the Art theater.

A quick poll about what the opposite of sex is produced the following replies: "That's a dumb question" (3); "Excessive food" (1); " A PG rating (1); "Running out of Viagra" (1); "No sex" (10), "Celibacy" (1).

The film opens with a small bang. Dedee's stepfather is being buried. He may or may not have abused her as she later declares, but then Dedee has a lot of imagination. A teen nymphette-rebel-with-probable-cause, she paces around the graveside, smoking, and practically kicking the coffin into the hole. This must mean that she didn't like the man. She clearly does not like her life, her mother and perhaps herself. A troubled girl.

Post-burial she runs away --to what looks like a small Indiana town but is a suburb of South Bend--, to stay with her long-time-no-see much older half-brother Bill. He is a dedicated schoolteacher and seems to be a nice sort. His lover Tom had died of AIDS and left Bill plenty of money and an upscale house. He also seems to have inherited the late Tom's sister Lucia. Rather nervous, insecure, sexually repressed,  and apparently Bill's best friend, she's a protector of sorts who hovers around the man. Bill's current lover is a handsome, likable, twenty-something Mattt. Neither man evinces any gay mannerisms.

Dedee is 16, going at the same time on 30 and on 12. Like the combination brat, tramp and "agent provocateur" that she is, she sets out to take out her dysfunctionality on the Indiana Three. She thinks  highly of herself as a philosopher-sociologist-shrink,  and talks a lot, a big lot. In spasmodic ways, she also narrates the film. It's an old device but used here with much originality. Dedee comments  to the audience about everything, acts like the eye of God, like someone who has already seen the finished movie The Opposite Sex, can tell us about it and about herself, pass judgments, tell us what we are expecting but won't get, tell us what she's going to tell us.

Dedee is a very fast talker. Her language is foul and trashy. She seems to be savoring all her filthy words, rolling them around her mouth and putting them in capitals. That kid is a mix of precocious wisdom and infantilism, lies and truths, skepticism and cynicism, particles of sophistication and big chunks of false sophistication.

She can be, and mostly is, unbearably irritating, but then that's part of the script's strategy. Her foul language would disqualify her from being a snake oil saleswoman, but she gets other  kinds of results. The first major thing she does in Indiana is to come on blatantly to Matt, verbally and physically (but the audience is shown no nudity). In a flash she convinces Matt that he is, or can be a heterosexual, that in his affair with Bill "you are basically [verb deleted] your father." She seduces him pronto. The new couple takes off for California, and takes along ten thousand dollars stolen from Bill as well as the precious urn in which he kept Tom's ashes. Her seduction agenda. we learn later, is caused by Dedee's being pregnant by, most likely, one of her Louisiana lovers, teen-ager Randy, famous for having only one testicle.

This is just the beginning. If you want to pigeonhole the movie, is a sort of black comedy/farce. Outrageous complications follow in all directions, include flashbacks, home movies, everything and everybody.

There's local  sheriff Carl played by the bizarre, improbable Lyle Lovett. He is a widower and sweet on Lucia. When the latter reproaches him "Your wife was dying and you [verb deleted] her nurse," Carl missing no beat replies "If Nancy didn't mind..." Bill gets blackmailed, then falsely defamed by his former student Jason. The town is most receptive to anti-gay feelings. and a scandal follows in the local media.

Bill and Lucia set out after Dedee-Matt who become Dedee-Randy when the latter materializes from the sticks of Louisiana. Carl follows Bill and Lucia. Add to this fights, guns firing, a motorcycle purchase, other madnesses and non sequiturs. Add to that an incredible trip to Canada as, by car, somehow (but how?) A follows B who follows C who has gone there with D, and where E magically pops up, and where the entire cast is reunited in a cabin in the woods!

The script  overdoes its wish to be topical, current and trendy. Trying too hard to be original, it overloads the plot, overkills its gimmicks, characters, absurdism. Admittedly, there are moments of comedy and farce, but too many of them get drowned in much humor that thinks it is humor but is not. Instead of Marx Brothers crazy-funny absurdism, we get crazy-showy, uncensored absurdism, at full throttle. The would-be avant-garde continuity, including time and space, is a mess.

Is the film worth seeing? Yes, for specialized audiences that are into the off-beat. It 's an experiment whose originality is interesting, even if it is too smug, self-conscious, frenetic and patchy. Screenwriter and now first-time director Don Roos must know the tricks of Pirandello, Brecht and the French New Wave, but has gone overboard. And we  still don't know what the opposite of sex is.

PS.  It would seem that this movie was made before The Ice Storm (released in 1977) which included Christina Ricci in the cast. " Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)

Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at  WILDE (UK, 1997) *** 1/3   Directed by Brian Gilbert. Written by Julian Mitchell, from the book "Oscar Wilde" by Richard Ellmann. Photography, Martin Fuhrer. Editing, Michael Bradsell. Production design, Maria Djurkovic. Music, Debbie Wiseman;  Produced by Marc Samuelson & Peter Samuelson.  Cast: Stephen Fry (Oscar Wilde), Jude Law (Lord Alfred  Douglas), Vanessa Redgrave (Lady Speranza Wilde),Jennifer Ehle (Constance Wilde), Gemma Jones (Lady Queensberry), Judy Parfitt (Lady Mount-Temple), Michael Sheen (Robert Ross), Zoe Wanamaker (Ada Leverson), Tom Wilkinson (The Marquess of Queensberry). A Sony Classics release. 116 minutes. R (sex, full rear male nudity)

Because I take for granted that Oscar Wilde the writer, the man and his wit are familiar to the film's potential public, I will not go into a general intro.Wilde's homosexuality (a crime under English law until the late 1960s), his famous affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, and the ensuing trials that finished off poor Oscar, have made him a "cause celebre" --if I am not mistaken, the first of that nature in modern history. Understandably,all this has made of Wilde a patron saint of gay artists.

Among the many cinema genres, few can be as difficult and as vulnerable to criticism as the biographical picture. Biopics are compromises. To relate a life -- or part of one -- and remain faithful to history in two hours of film is an impossibility, one that is even nastier than screen adaptations of major novels. Condensations, simplifications, selected episodes are unavoidable.

A case in point is the set of biopics directed by William Dieterle in the 1930s and early 1940s. They were all reverent works on major figures: Louis Pasteur (with Paul Muni, Oscared), Florence Nightingale, Emile Zola (Best Picture 1937, also with Muni), Juarez (with Muni), Reuter (with E.G.Robinson), Dr. Erlich (Robinson) Well-made, using major actors in both main and supporting roles, these works were big popular hits in their time. But today, with  audiences and critics, movies in that style would get a much more cautious reception. Even the sacrosanct epic "Napoleon" (1927, by Abel Gance) might be --but is not-- faulted for historical inaccuracies.

Dieterle and his likes represented the old school of biopics. After a transition period (e.g. Wilson, The Desert Fox, Viva Zapata) came the new school, in which no two of the better films followed the same strategy. Creative and unconventional treatments days were given so such masterful works as --and I cite a few pell-mell --Raging Bull, Van Gogh, Chaplin, Joe Hill, Lenny, Lawrence of Arabia, Malcolm X, Tous les Matins du Monde, Vincent and Theo, Stevie, Camille Claudel, Rosa Luxemburg, Hanussen, An Angel at My Table, Ed Wood...

Although Wilde, was not an easy item to tackle, it acquits itself honorably. There must have been good rapport between director and writer. Brian Gilbert, who made the funny, witty Vice Versa, the underrated Not Without My Daughter, then Tom and Viv, opted here for a Masterpiece Theatre/Ivory-Merchant style, unrevolutionary but fitting the subject. Versatile novelist-playwright Julian Mitchell is the author of many scenarios, including those of Arabesque, Another Country, Vincent and Theo, August (the directorial debut of Anthony Hopkins)-- not to mention nine episodes of that civilized delight, the Inspector Morse TV series.

Mitchell had already worked on another gay theme I know of, in his prize-winning stage-play  Another Country which is about  1930s students public-school students for whom homosexuality was trendy. Years later, as in the notorious Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean case, several government officials were found spying for the Soviet Union. A very good film was made of this. It starred Rupert Everett. The script was by Mitchell.

For the current movie --the third about Wilde--  Mitchell  based his scenario on the admirable biography by Richard Ellmann. The great scholar and critic  finished this long labor of love as he was dying of Lou Gehrig' s disease.He died in March 1987. The book appeared in early 1988. There is no way for a film script to reconstruct a 680-page volume. The scenario wisely opted for  selective choices and inspirations. It is faithful to Ellmann's belief that Wilde was as original and major  a writer, and a cultural influence, as he was a man who invented his own public persona, as wit, esthete, dandy, poseur, society lion and, among much else, a sly critic of the middle and upper classes of England, the very people who were the butt of Wilde's plays yet applauded them.

The film does not go into Wilde's Irish and English past and upbringing. It plunges right away into an already established Oscar who marries Constance. His wife, in older parlance "gave him two boys".

Robert Ross, a younger houseguest, reveals to Wilde that he (Oscar) is really a homosexual. A relationship starts between the two. It is followed by others, culminates in the love affair between Wilde and handsome, some 20 years younger Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie").

It's a bizarre affair. Oscar's love is steadfast, while the capricious, self-spoiled Bosie blows hot and cold, introduces Oscar to lower class people, often insults, hurts, exploits, taunts him and is despicable. He flaunts their couple in public,also taunts his father. The latter, played by Tom Wilkinson --who has a very different role in The Full Monty-- is here the wealthy Marquess of Queensberry, a crude, rude, violent sportsman whom Bosie hates. (He is the same Lord Queensberry after whom the basic codes for boxing were named, although another sportsman wrote them).

Delightful is the movie's inclusion of some aspects of Wilde's enormously growing fame as a playwright, plus much Wildean humor, wit, and the expected Wildean thoughts and epigrams. But concurrently as well as exponentially, we see the sadness of the man's public and private life, the unavoidable troubles and scandals. The tragedy, latent throughout the writer's life, now springs out of the closet. It becomes all the more painful to watch since Wilde is a most likable fellow, generous to a fault, and never really inflicting harm or hurt on others.

Actor Stephen Fry is an uncanny match for Wilde. He even looks like him, though taller, less rotund, and with a face not so soft as in the photographs of Wilde. Fry, also a writer and a wit, temperamental, unpredictable, rather sweet, openly gay, is a rare case of perfect casting. Superior too is the casting of Lord Alfred Douglas and that of  Robert Ross. Robbie remains through thick and thin Oscar's true friend and helper, and the voice of reason.

Because we know how everything comes out, the earlier and/or some lighter scenes are made suspenseful as we wait for the axe to fall. And we wish that the so-smart Oscar had not been so dumb as to be prodded by Bosie into initiating that terrible libel suit against Queensberry. If there was a time when "don't ask, don't tell" was the best possible advice, it was in Victorian days.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel