The Opposite of Sex
Director: Don Roos. Cast: Christina Ricci, Martin Donovan, Lisa Kudrow, Ivan Sergei, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Galecki, William Lee Scott, Colin Ferguson. Screenplay: Don Roos.

Sex was the topic on every American's lips in 1998, a year when even our President weighed in on what counted as "sex," pending whose lips were where. It somehow seems fitting, then, that my two favorite English-language films of the closing year—with more than a few promising holiday tickets still to see, mind you—also had the most interesting notions about amorous behavior. In Love and Death on Long Island, an unexpected fascination that could be construed as sexual is slowly and touchingly revealed to be something rather different than that, or something rather more. In Don Roos' hilarious and confident The Opposite of Sex, the couples multiply, couplings turn into triangles, and the year's most unlikely authorities separate what is love from what is a mere, if avid, pastime. If you keep with writer-director Roos' definition of sex, this film isn't the opposite of sex at all: it's just as wild, just as addictive, occasionally as convoluted, and as ironically, endlessly funny.

Dedee Truitt is the central character and the narrator of what is essentially, to borrow a phrase, her own bad-ass song. Not so much played as exquisitely ice-sculpted by Christina Ricci, Dedee is first seen fluffing her blond tresses and tweaking her nipples in preparation for a rare and sour public appearance: the funeral of her stepfather. Dedee is unlikely ever to deem any scenario inappropriate for her vamping and seducing; even less probable is the chance that her attitude will improve from these first glimpses. "I had one of those mothers who was always telling people her daughter was her best friend," she narrates in typically deadpan style over the funeral scene. "When she said it, I'd think, 'Great—not only do I have a shitty mother, my best friend is a loser bitch.'" And here she flicks her cigarette onto the coffin and throws her folding chair into the open grave. Elevator-ish jazz-lite plays in the background. "I had to get out of there," she complains of her Louisiana home town. "Look at it—wouldn't you?"

From this audacious, riotous opening, several things become clear about The Opposite of Sex that will remain true all throughout its 103 minutes. One is that Roos, a debut director whose previous scripts included Single White Female and Boys on the Side, has a blazing gift for one-liners, which are generously peppered through nearly every scene. Another is that he likes his comedy served black, marked by shocking insolence, prankish self-consciousness, and a strategic, universal, and utterly embraceable rudeness. This brings us to the third and most important element in Opposite's opening, which is that Dedee, by her own words, doesn't "have a heart of gold, and I don't grow one later."

Both in Roos' devilish formulation of Dedee and in Ricci's adept and pitiless playing, we get a mean-spirited, nearly irredeemable, but hypnotizing lead character who fulfills all the promise that As Good As It Gets' totally false Melvin Udall only pretended to. She's as mean as a Siamese cat, and sure she's funny, but neither she nor the filmmakers are going to ask you to like her. She won't get cute to serve any formula, and her temperament has more destructive and unpredictable consequences than most of Jack Nicholson's muggingly "biting" observations. Also, by refreshing contrast to the woefully scattershot and slack There's Something About Mary, you can't see Roos' jokes coming from a mile away, and they derive from the cores of the characters, rather than from contrived situations.

But what characters Roos writes, and how outrageous the situations! After splitting Louisiana, Dedee makes her way to her half-brother's home in South Bend, Indiana. Bill, her half-brother, is twenty years her senior, and a gay English teacher at the local high school. Despite his sly wit, his quiet decency makes him, in Dedee terms, "the definition of a softie." Once more, comparisons to a recent film, Frank Oz's In & Out, immediately suggest themselves, and once more they come down resoundingly in Roos' favor. Homosexuality is prime fodder for many of Opposite's jokes, but Bill himself is not a joke, and the world he inhabits, pastel-colored and unmetropolitan as it is, accepts his sexuality almost casually, at least until their sympathies are manipulated by the entropic forces of farce.

As played by Martin Donovan—an indie-circuit staple as welcome and reliable as Ricci—Bill's gentle reserve springs at least in part from sad events of the recent past: Tom, hislover of many years, has died of AIDS, and though he inherited their spacious home and a comfortable sum of money, there is a huge void in his heart. Dedee treats this legacy with the same abrasiveness with which she approaches everything else. She refers to the deceased as "Tom the Dead Guy" and, upon discovering his ashes on Bill's mantel, announces, "Yuck—but look how pretty the urn is. That's typical gay."

There are two more characters that must be introduced for a clear outline of the story to be set, though one of Roos' great skills as a script-writer is in introducing his cast and their adventures quickly, cleanly, and to maximum comic effect. One of these is Matt (Ivan Sergei), the strikingly handsome but empty boyfriend who has been Bill's live-in companion for nearly a year upon Dedee's arrival. How much of Bill's interest in the amiable but aimless Matt is physical and how much is an earnest romantic connection is an issue of increasingly great debate as the film continues. Matt is initially (and all too easily) moved by Dedee's plight as grieving stepdaughter and runaway from afar. Afterward he is discomfited by her spiky, impolite candor ("He's old enough to be your father!" she says to him of Bill), but he is increasingly tantalized by her ample charms and vulgar come-ons, until finally the two wind up in bed. Wait, isn't Matt gay? Well, he wants a "normal life," heterosexual and procreative, or so he rationalizes when they tell Bill of his dastardly liaison with Dedee.

If the rankled but indulgent Bill were their only obstacle, these two would probably—through Dedee's conniving and Matt's puppy-dog eyes—would probably be able to take off, grab some quick cash, and fill their own movie of bickering, lazing about, and rolling in the hay. All this, but for the interventions of The Opposite of Sex's final major protagonist, and she is not just Roos' crowning achievement, she is a front-line candidate as the year's most indelible character.

Lucia Dalury, the sister of Tom the Dead Guy and self-appointed protector of Bill, is a hawkish, lonely, and dazzlingly acerbic schoolteacher as ungainly as her curious name. (For the record, it's pronounced "LOO-shuh Duh-LOO-ree.") Virtually nothing escapes Lucia's bitter attention, and she knows right off the bat that Dedee is trouble. When Matt confesses his infidelity to Bill, she, pacing the floor like an angry stork, accuses indignantly, "You're GAY, you jerk!" Things only get uglier, and funnier, from there, and Lucia often saves herself from a life of total neglect by being at least four or five steps ahead of everyone else's thinking. The one guy who actually invites Lucia's company, a local policeman played by Lyle Lovett, is the object of some of her most withering digs. It seems Carl was guilty of his own sexual dalliances while his wife was terminally ill, though even Lucia does not know so much about that situation as she thinks she does.

One could argue that Lucia gets most of the best lines as the picture proceeds to its dizzying heights of sexual roundelay, cross-country pursuit, and dexterous wordplay. That may be, but more to the point is that Lisa Kudrow, best known as Phoebe on TV's Friends, proves beyond a doubt that she is a sorceress of comic timing and tension. Here is an actress who too often coasts (or else is forced to rely) on her own admittedly unique ditzy-girl schtick. Here, though, she conjures a very different creature, imbuing her with a physical awkwardness and a surprising emotional richness only surpassed by her show-stopping way with a good zinger. The idiosyncratic beats of Kudrow's delivery and her flawless batting average with every joke may recall her work in previous projects, but this Lucia could only have been achieved by an actress, not a stand-up comedian, and surely not a one-trick pony.

Of course, Kudrow benefits like everyone else from Roos' sparkling script, which makes Lucia the unlikely double for the diabolical Dedee. Both these characters are quick-thinking, and such total pills that you probably wouldn't really want to know them, and yet they are both so creatively written and played that we can't help engaging with them. Kudrow and Lovett also get the chance to vocalize Roos' honestly developed but startlingly tender observations about the decidedly 1990s amorousness and (a)morality of his characters. "It seems like a lot of trouble for not much," Lucia says of sex, and of Bill's wimpish, ceaseless devotion to the buff but hopelessly credulous Matt. "That's your right," she concedes, "just don't say it's about love. You're an English teacher. Call things by their right names."

Lovett's Carl, for his part, offers some incisive words on the role that sex can or maybe should play in the confusing world Roos describes, which after all is not too far removed from the one in which we all make our way each day. Admittedly, those areas of the plot concerning Lovett are the film's weakest and most briskly developed, which may or may not be the fault of Lovett's serviceable but strange film personality. There are also a couple of amateurish moments from Roseanne's Johnny Galecki as yet another participant in the ongoing fracas, and a tasteless, eleventh-hour joke about incest has not gotten a single laugh from any of the four audiences with whom I have seen the film.

So The Opposite of Sex isn't perfect; you could even argue the points, though I myself disagree, that the film is too talky, too unimaginatively shot, too irritating in its own unending auto-commentary. I can see those arguments, and I would tend to believe that personal tastes will determine one's reaction to this film more than is customary for even the most ribald comedies. To me, however, all of these contestations wither before the fact that, quite nearly alone in this pitiful year of cinema, The Opposite of Sex and its sturdy, scintillant cast fulfill every ambition to which they aspire. The missteps are nothing but small, stale patches in the sweet frosting of a scrumptious and nourishing cake. It more than satisfies audience expectations even as Dedee mercilessly exposes just how trying a film like this could have been—and by extension, how jaded we often become in our hopes that comedy can still shock, much less enliven and entertain.

Halfway through The Opposite of Sex, Lucia sits alone, in flashback, at her pretty sister's wedding. She is hideously attired and uncouthly pushing sweets into her mouth, while Dedee embellishes, "I know in movies you feel sorry for characters like this, but in real life, come on—you wouldn't be sitting next to her, either." At least half the characters in this picture I wouldn't join for a quick cup of coffee, but all of them, especially the marvelous women, and the bright talent who has put them all on screen, deserve a rousing toast and a round on the house. A–


Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Christina Ricci

Other Awards:
Independent Spirit Awards: Best First Feature; Best Screenplay
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Supporting Actress (Kudrow)
National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actress (Ricci; also cited for Buffalo '66 and Pecker); Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking
Satellite Awards: Best Actress, Musical/Comedy (Ricci)

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