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Tucson Weekly Seeing Through The Roos

Only One Guy In Hollywood Knows For Certain If 'Opposite Of Sex' Is A Movie Or Anti-Movie.

By Zachary Woodruff

JULY 6, 1998:  YOU'VE HEARD STORIES of the conflicts between writers and directors as they make a movie. The directors try to simplify scenes for emotional effect, while the writers kick and scream that their vision is being compromised. Normally, when the writer and the director are the same person, the war's over and nobody complains. Not so with The Opposite of Sex. While telling a plot-heavy story of love, betrayal and acceptance among a highly unlikely extended family, writer/director Don Roos is constantly--and self-consciously--at battle with his own intentions.

It's an entertaining fight. Remember the scene in Night of the Hunter when the preacher played by Robert Mitchum demonstrates the struggle between love and hate? Clasping together his hands, which have each word tattooed on the fingers, Mitchum arm-wrestles himself back and forth while loudly sermonizing.

Roos, via his screenplay and his direction, does much the same thing throughout The Opposite of Sex. For example: On the one hand, director Roos generates sympathy for Bill (Martin Donovan), a gay man whose younger lover left him for a woman, during a montage of Bill moping around the house while sad music plays. On the other hand, screenwriter Roos undercuts the scene with the mean-spirited narration of Christina Ricci (the man-stealing woman in question), who remarks, "It's just music--it doesn't mean he's better than me. People getting dumped are always lovable."

Does Roos want us to care about the characters on the screen, or is he trying to get us to laugh at and question the conventions of this sort of film? A little of both, perhaps. Or maybe he has no idea that what he's doing is self-canceling. Either way, director Roos and writer Roos both seem to be having a great time.

To his credit, director Roos has done the impossible by taking an utterly complicated storyline and making it seem brisk and light. Within its first 20 minutes, The Opposite of Sex has enough machinations to give any soap opera serious plot envy.

It all starts when walking catalyst Dedee (Ricci), curvy Louisiana white trash with a gift for manipulation, comes to live at the Indiana house of her pushover brother Bill (Donovan). Dedee convinces Bill's live-in lover Matt (Ivan Sergei) he's not gay, and they have an affair. Not long after, Dedee claims she's pregnant, and soon Bill and Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), the embittered sister of Bill's dead-of-AIDS former boyfriend Tom, are running off to L.A. to search for Matt and Dedee, who stole $10,000 and Tom's ashes. Bill's still in love with Matt, but he's also being blackmailed by Matt's secret boyfriend Jason (Johnny Galecki, from Roseanne), who threatens to destroy Bill's high-school teaching reputation by claiming Bill came on to Jason when he was a student.

Yes, that's just the first 20 minutes. Further convolutions involve Dedee's Bible-thumping, one-testicled other boyfriend; Lucia's unspoken love for Bill; and a friendly but scandal-plagued local cop played by Lyle Lovett. Writer Roos (whose other credits include Boys on the Side) has embedded various themes about sexuality, love and such into the script, but it's director Roos who keeps this implausible mess watchable. He's the one, after all, who selected and worked with the cast.

All the actors are impeccable, with Donovan, Ricci and Kudrow giving standout performances. Donovan conquers the tough, subtle task of appearing quiet but not mute, calm but not apathetic, hurt but not completely wimpy. Ricci makes a plumply sexy Lolita type, served up with an extra helping of evil. In fact, she's almost too good at being a bitch; you'll probably find yourself wishing harm upon her (which the movie is happy to supply). Strange quality in a narrator.

Best of all is Lisa Kudrow, and not just because she gets all the great zinger lines. ("This is how we do things on the planet Maturia. We have much to teach you.") In this film and Clockwatchers, Kudrow has revealed herself to be a versatile comic actress with an adventurous taste in scripts. More than just a '90s Teri Garr, I vote her the one Friends friend most deserving of a substantial movie career.

Kudrow's cynical schoolmarm helps The Opposite of Sex rise above most of its problems, and her character is amply rewarded. Meanwhile Ricci, the troublemaker, gets her comeuppance. I liken the two women to the two Roos: director Roos, like Kudrow, holds the movie together; while writer Roos, who like Ricci causes serious problems, also has the most in-your-face fun.

It's writer Roos who frequently takes Ricci's narration overboard and turns it into blatant scolding. Just when you might find yourself caring about Ricci's fate, her voice comes in and quips, "What, did you think I'd end up dead? C'mon, I'm the fucking narrator--keep up, guys!" Roos wants to have his audience-expectation cake and mock it, too, and as a result I never was sure whether I was attending a movie or an anti-movie. Fortunately for The Opposite of Sex, watching him duke it out with himself was more than enough entertainment to keep the contradiction appealing.


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