Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A Little Sex + Casual Sex?

(R, Universal Pictures, 95 mins., theatrical release date: April 2, 1982)

(R, Universal Pictures, 88 mins., theatrical release date: April 22, 1988)

Nobody goes to the movies for a sex education class, but most coitus-based mainstream comedies are actually more invested in the equally dirty deed of romance. This is especially true for both A Little Sex and Casual Sex?, then-contemporary '80s throwaways whose forthright titles are pillow talk concealing more pressing concerns on the minds of voraciously carnal singles. Is marriage a surefire cure for a wandering eye? How do you measure physical compatibility when you're fretting over the danger of STDs? Can you be seduced by either of these movies tonight and not hate yourself in the morning?

In the case of Bruce Paltrow's A Little Sex, there's nothing a TV-based sensitivity and some pixie dust can't do for a naïve beeline to the Chapel of Love. This is only natural considering MTM Enterprises (as in Mary Tyler Moore, of course) optioned this as their first theatrical release, splitting the $6,000,000 bill with distributor Universal Pictures (who also loosed Casual Sex? upon us). Paltrow (creator of MTM-TV's The White Shadow) and writer/producer Bob DeLaurentis have ported over the fairytale of New York from Mary's flagship sitcom and skewed it to a more male curiosity, but their overall philosophy is no different than the one voiced in her theme song: "You're gonna make it after all." This is true even if you're a freshly-wedded stud who's been tirelessly cuckolding your future spouse during the 10 months you were live-in lovers.

Michael Donovan (Tim Matheson) works as a commercials director, so he's confronted with temptation no matter where he goes, be it on the set or at a dinner date or strolling down a Madison Avenue past a hallucination's worth of provocatively-dressed women. His older brother Tommy (Edward Herrmann), a veterinarian at the Central Park Zoo, knows via regular conversation that Michael's raging libido is as natural as a "birth defect" and bets the $82 in his wallet that his brother will slip up and cuckold his bride, Katherine Harrison (Kate Capshaw), who teaches at the Mother of Christ parochial school for girls.

And Michael does slip, first with Philomena (Wendie Malick), the clarinet-playing girlfriend of Kate's longtime friend and Julliard teacher Walter (John Glover), and then with an aggressive wannabe actress named Nancy (Susanna Dalton). Kate catches him in the latter clinch, and all comedy goes out the window as Michael stews in the resulting guilt and loneliness. The rest of the film is an arduous string of failed reconciliations (Mike types out a list of 18 past conquests to demonstrate previously nonexistent honesty) and pleas for advice from both sides. The dejected Kate turns to her mother, Mrs. Harrison (Joan Copeland), who relates the time she caught Kate's father in bed with her grade school teacher ("their own private PTA meeting"), an act she confronted first with sober discussion and then with a broken ankle.

DeLaurentis' script cheats as often as his central character, withholding substantial information about Michael & Kate's affair (they've been going together for years rather than months, which Michael offhandedly complains about at the onset) and indulging too much in cutesy tricks and on-the-nose banter. Their introductory encounter finds Michael and Kate, presented as perfect strangers, provoking "Why, I never!" reactions from old ladies at a fruit stand as he challenges her to a foot race. "You always cheat!" Kate protests after Michael trips her up on the stairs of their apartment complex. "And I always will," Michael counters, "as long as I get you in the end." This symptomizes the faults of DeLaurentis and Paltrow, who lack the genuine sophistication or the lively comedic touch needed to invest us in the splintered relationship at hand.

Tim Matheson and Kate Capshaw are underserved by such regressive schmaltz. Having hunked himself up considerably since Animal House, Matheson labors to find the sincerity in a caddish character limited by his entitlement and hang-ups. Michael appears to have real intimacy issues no amount of Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo on the part of Mary Tyler Moore can counter. He's open about his nuptial responsibility to an old flame, Sandy (P.J. Mann), who arrives out of the blue and asks him out to a harmless dinner. But he (and DeLaurentis) disregard this for dreary scenes of Michael being overpowered by callow stereotypes of maneater femininity: Philomena assures him he'll get better at removing his wedding band on the next tryst, and Nancy all but tears off her clothes in her seduction of Michael. Capshaw, in her feature debut, is infinitely more charming under Paltrow's boxy direction than even Steven could manage. But her Katherine never develops a consistent personality. She hops into bed with Walter seeking to understand the concept of loveless sex, but is finally reduced to an indignant doormat who delights in walloping Michael with a field hockey stick.

Tis a pity, since Walter is played with refreshing subtlety by John Glover. Known for officious supporting roles in the likes of 52 Pick-Up and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Glover refuses to turn Walter into a cauldron of self-absorbed ressentiment. He demonstrates a beguiling warmth in his scenes with Capshaw epitomized by his farewell delivery of the inevitable question all platonic friends should ask when eyed for a rebound. The good sense Glover demonstrates is more abundant in Edward Herrmann's droll portrayal of Tommy, and both actors realize the amiable honesty DeLaurentis attempts in his script. Herrmann, bless his departed soul, is the movie's saving grace, providing a no-nonsense combination of intellectual and fraternal superiority. He also gets DeLaurentis' funniest one-liners. When his brother arrives late for his wedding rehearsal on account of a back massage from a buxom mattress spokesmodel, Tommy zings Michael thusly: "Science is the art of observation. You got lip gloss on your ears."

Casual Sex? has its own stifling mundanities to overcome, attempting a farcical look at female sexuality instead of male and with the death's-head specter of AIDS plaguing the "whole man-woman relationship thing." Lea Thompson, perky as ever, is Stacy Hunter, who played the field during the sexually active first half of '80s, with a peculiar weakness for artistic types. Her best friend Melissa (Victoria Jackson) has feared to tread, blooming late during her second year of college and nearly hitching herself to an inattentive slob. What with her straight-to-the-camera philosophy about "sex [being] a good way to meet new people," Stacy appears blithely disinterested in romantic union as opposed to revolving-door boyfriends and daredevil nymphomania. The next thing you know, Stacy is pondering celibacy in the face of mounting health scares and crinkling her face at the very thought of "safe sex," as if prophylactics were an automatic dealbreaker.

Stacy and Melissa opt for a week's vacation at the Oasis Spa, which caters to fitness-conscious singles and welcomes patrons with gift baskets full of condoms (enough to safeguard the entire planet, sez Melissa). On their first night, they and the other guests engage in a geographically-themed matchmaking party ("Ecuador? Ecuador?") where Melissa is paired with the negging Matthew (Peter Dvorsky) and Stacy is stuck with Vinny Valcone (Andrew "Dice" Clay), a palooka from Paterson, New Jersey, who refers to himself in the first person as "The Vin Man," often to the sing-songy refrain of Tom Jones' "She's a Lady" ("I'm the best from the East/I'm a wild, crazy beast"). Stacy would much rather be with aerobics instructor Nick Lawrence (Stephen Shellen), a bohunk with stunted adolescent dreams of becoming a rock god, while Melissa is pined for by another staffer, Jamie (Jerry Levine), the closest thing to a Perfect Man at the resort.

Screenwriters Wendy Goldman & Judy Toll have adapted their 1985 musical performance piece of the same name, the question mark at the end a reflection of the lip service paid to AIDS and other venereal maladies. But under Ivan Reitman's production auspice and his wife Genevieve Robert's one-shot direction, Casual Sex? wouldn't have felt out of place a year before the play's debut, when Blame It on Rio and Where the Boys Are '84 premiered theatrically. The heroines sunbathe at a nude beach and engage in slumber party conversations about vibrators and orgasms. Men and women alike are characterized in the broadest terms befitting the typical low-rate sex comedy of those "innocent" years. The caliber of actors and filmmakers here are surely better than the bulk of those, but Casual Sex? is only two steps up the evolutionary ladder from, say, The Allnighter.

This hedging of bets is there in the way the soundtrack flogs Buster Poindexter's "Hot Hot Hot" from the main titles on down to almost every scene transition to follow (a far more tolerable Kid Creole song is withheld until the end credits, and the nominal composer is Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks). It's there in gags involving girl-watching goons getting hit in the groin by projectile tennis balls. It's there in the tender lovemaking scene between Stacy and Nick, only now the ingénue breaks the fourth wall a la Ferris Bueller for a wry punchline. And it definitely shows as the movie strains to wrap itself up by rewarding Stacy and Melissa their happily ever after coda. In much the same way as A Little Sex and its deliberately juvenile competition from Porky's on down, Robert takes a preoccupation with sex and removes all the pleasure from it. With the exception of Jessica Rabbit, the cold hard truth about cartoons is that they just aren't sexy.

The leading ladies certainly are, even Victoria Jackson as the inexperienced Melissa. Her spacey comic style is like Kimmy Robertson emulating Melanie Griffith, and it's wholly endearing. And yet the vivacious Lea Thompson, a seasoned starlet if ever there was one by 1988, runs into more trouble here than when she played Beverly Switzer in the woeful Howard the Duck. She is hardly the Ms. Matthew Broderick that Genevieve Robert tries to coax out of her (Elizabeth Shue would've been more natural were she willing to go au naturel), and Thompson's reliable effervescence peaks early on during a montage of Stacy's oversexed past (e.g.: her dilettantish guffaws at a hack comic's pelvic undulations) and never builds back up again.

And then Robert rolls the Dice.

Having declared his John Travolta parody the best thing about the otherwise lousy Making the Grade, Andrew "Dice" Clay builds upon that muscular goofiness to deliver an honest-to-goodness comic creation as the Vin Man. All the ingredients of his impending superstardom are here, the leather jacket and "bada bing, bada boom" dialect and dimwitted machismo (complete with pet name for his dong), but they fuse with Goldman & Toll's sketch-minded satirical acumen to make the Vin Man like something Clay could have conceivably workshopped for the Groundlings troupe. When he raps a long-winded confession joke at Melissa that lands with a plop, he bounces back with "Well, they're not all golden, honey." Although it is implied that Vinny and Melissa make a meatball sandwich on the beach, the Vin Man saves the cheese for Stacy, who is so initially charmed she refers to him as "a living argument for birth control."

The guido can't help it. Not even a demonstration of dating tips gleaned from "The Pretend You're Sensitive Handbook" makes him seem less of a nuisance to Stacy, who has agreed to let Nick live with her back home in L.A. But Nick turns out to be even more of a selfish deadbeat than Vinny, who retreats back to Paterson only to experience a rush of soul-searching ("I've forced myself to take a closer look at the Vin Man. Ya know, open 'im up, pull him out, dissect 'im like a frog"). A dynamite ending would've had Vinny arrive on the same soundstage as Stacy and Melissa, during which Stacy would say the rightful closing line ("What can I say? Life is bizarre!") and then proceed to jump him the same way she did her old sous-chef, Gunter Kroger. It would've made more sense than the tacked-on joint New Year's/Christmas epilogues we do get, which unbecomingly smothers both Clay and the film in creamed corn.

(An alternate ending, preserved on the DVD, involves a character played by Bruce Abbott of Re-Animator fame, whom I hate to admit I didn't notice at all when I watched the film.)

As it stands, Casual Sex? is another perfunctory late '80s studio comedy. Goldman & Toll don't really do much with the resort setting besides recycle the usual dream sequences (the funniest involves Nick sweeping Stacy off her feet as her past lovers interrupt to inform her of what else came next), schlock rock numbers (Nick miming a godawful Dan Hartman ballad to Stacy's face) and deadpan asides to the audience ("I'm concerned about this penis size thing"). On the evidence of their respective sex comedies, Genevieve Robert and Bruce Paltrow are the more compatible soul mates next to their hetero-genous seekers. Mating social commentary with celluloid conventionality, A Little Sex and Casual Sex? are, to quote Rick Moranis, "a long ceremony [leading to] a short honeymoon."