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Metro Pulse Opposites Detract

Christina Ricci can't save The Opposite of Sex from itself.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

AUGUST 17, 1998:  The 1990s have been great for movies—everywhere but America. Well, not everywhere exactly, but a lot of places. In China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Australia, the U.K., Eastern Europe, Mexico, Russia, even Finland and Iran—not to mention traditional heavyweights like France and Japan—the decade has seen feats of invention and imagination, sprawling epics and low-key comedies, gangster movies and family dramas. Meanwhile, in the U.S. we've evolved a strange two-tier system that's not working very well on either level.

Level A is Hollywood, of course. We don't really expect good movies from Hollywood. We just want to be entertained. Unfortunately, the increasingly lazy productions rolling off the L.A. assembly lines aren't even doing that particularly well. Sure, Titanic worked better than you would have expected, but that was an exception—and James Cameron had to build the biggest damn floating set in history just to distract us from the dopiness of the script.

But that's all right, at least in theory, because we have Level B—the indie films. This is where we're supposed to go for intelligent movies, movies that have something to say or a new way to say it. I'm not going to go into how indies aren't really indies anymore because the big studios have basically taken over the market. I don't care. It's so hard to get a decent movie made, it seems silly to quibble over how you get it financed. The biggest problem with American indies is that so many of them have so little on their minds.

A good example is The Opposite of Sex, the latest in a cluttered line of ironic '90s dramas. Ostensibly a black comedy, the film is so busy developing and selling an attitude that it doesn't really get around to basics like story, character, or sense of purpose. It's so acutely (and cutely) aware of being a movie that it's barely a movie at all.

The film's main selling point is its star, Christina Ricci. She's this year's bad girl, picking up where Juliette Lewis and Drew Barrymore left off. She was great as the sexually confused pubescent in The Ice Storm, just okay as the drug-addled naif in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and has been getting raves as the kidnapped heroine in the not-yet-in-Knoxville Buffalo 66. What sets Ricci apart from so many other young actresses is the same petulance that made her stand out in The Addams Family. With her snub nose and baby fat, she's every inch the sullen but vulnerable teen.

And that's exactly what she's supposed to be in The Opposite of Sex—as runaway 16-year-old Dedee Truitt, she projects the kind of foul-mouthed, tough-minded insolence that you just know is concealing some deep-seated insecurities. If that sounds like a cliché, it's supposed to be. Everybody in the movie is a deliberate type—from Dedee's passive gay half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan) to his brainless himbo boyfriend Matt (Ivan Sergei) to the bitter spinster schoolteacher Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), whose dead brother was Bill's lover.

Dedee, on the run from a dumbly conceived white trash hell (why do filmmakers get poverty so wrong so often?), crashes headlong into the lives of Bill, Matt, and Lucia, and mayhem ensues. As Dedee tells us in smart-assed voiceovers, she quickly seduces Matt and convinces him to steal some money from Bill and run away with her. When one of Matt's ex-boyfriends then accuses Bill—a high school English teacher—of having molested him years earlier, the plot heats up.

Or it's supposed to. But The Opposite of Sex tries so hard to be hip and energetic that it achieves, well, the opposite. A madcap storyline this laboriously conceived isn't madcap at all. It's tedious. Most of the blame goes to first-time writer/director Don Roos, who seems to think he's the first person ever to recognize the formula mechanics of movie plots. When he has Dedee tell us to remember that she's carrying a gun because it's going to be important later in the movie, it's the kind of gesture that would be clever in a 10th-grade writing class.

Since the film is all tell and no show, we don't get to know, understand, or care about the people involved. It's a character-driven movie with no characters. Granted, the performers give it their best shot. Donovan and Kudrow are fine in their limited roles, and most of the supporting cast is strong (although Lyle Lovett, as a cop with a crush on Lucia, seems to have wandered in from a John Sayles film). And it's unfair to blame Ricci for not being able to shoulder the burden the film puts on her, because she's playing a fundamentally unbelievable character. Dedee warns us at the beginning that we won't like her, which is supposed to make us think that eventually we will. But by the end, I had no opinion of her at all, because I still had no sense of who or what she was supposed to be.

The Opposite of Sex is loaded with laugh lines that strive for outrage—it gets by with vicious anti-gay jokes, because they're supposed to show us how calculatedly cold Dedee is, even as the movie assures us gays are really people just like you and me. It's a cheap gimmick, but it's what you'd expect in a film that, like so many recent indie products, mistakes smug self-consciousness for insight.


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