Friday, March 28, 2008
Too True To Be Good
So where has Daniel Waters been all this time? Has he been writing? Just hanging out? Why aren’t there more Daniel Waters scripts for us to quote from endlessly? And has it really been 19 years since Winona Ryder got to say so much of that addictively memorable dialogue in HEATHERS? If it’s taken this long to hear her say words by Waters again, well, at least it happened eventually. SEX AND DEATH 101 is a welcome return to hearing some of that dialogue again and even if it feels rough around the edges, I’m not sure that those edges should be shaved off.
Suave ladies man Roderick Blank (Simon Baker of LAND OF THE DEAD and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA), an executive for a gourmet fast-food chain looking forward to his impending marriage, receives a mysterious email containing a long list of women’s names. At first noticing that it contains a full list, in chronological order, of the thirty-odd women he has ever had sex with. But instead of stopping at his future wife, the names of seventy-odd names follow. He soon comes to the conclusion that the remaining names can only be all the women who he will be having sex with during the rest of his life. After making this determination he becomes obsessed with going down the list to fulfill having sex with every single woman listed but he soon begins to wonder just how much this will affect his own destiny. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman known only as Death Nell (Winona Ryder) is becoming notorious for putting men into comas as a way of payback for their alleged sex crimes.
It sounds like it could be a plotline for a twenty-first century version of LOVE AMERICAN STYLE and early on it seems to be taking such an outlandish approach that it seems difficult to imagine how the idea could be sustained. Fortunately, Waters keeps his scenario in the air by coming up with ways for his lead character to respond to his unusual situation. The movie gets better as it goes along and is continually bringing unexpected developments into its story. Once Roderick Blank learns of the vaguely fantastical reason for receiving the list—in some ways a more grounded approach to the ‘heaven’ sequences in those kinds of movies—he has a series of reactions and notions relating to his own insecurities of how he wants to live his life. In some ways, it comes off as its own version of the Five Stage of Grief. And this character, within this very bizarre storyline and at times ridiculous humor, is somehow played as surprisingly adult and human. The low budget clearly shows at times, but SEX AND DEATH has a surprising degree of bite to it lacking from mainstream romantic comedies these days. The explorations of the ugliness in glamour, to put a phrase on it and trying to find some humanity within that, does certainly recall elements of HEATHERS, that much is certain. But while the most outrageous sections throughout may not be as memorable of the earlier film’s greatest moments, the surprising amount of depth it has, even during some extremely dark, comical moments, mean that it will probably stick around in my head and remain interesting on repeat viewings. I fully admit that it’s kind of all over the place, but the fact that it seems to demand a realistic response within its comedy from its characters at times is almost enough to put me on its side. Fortunately, there are more than enough laughs throughout as well. And plenty of nudity too, I should probably mention that.
Simon Baker is surprisingly good in the role, bringing dimension to his part and making him likable in a believable way, while never compromising the nastiness of what his character does at times. The nature of Winona Ryder’s part is that she has to linger on the outskirts of the narrative as an enigmatic figure, almost paralleling how we think of the actress herself these days. There are a few vague echoes of Veronica Sawyer in her performance and it’s kind of wonderful to see her in this sort of part again. Also appearing (some of whom doing surprisingly good work) are Leslie Bibb from POPULAR, Julie Bowen from LOST, Mindy Cohn (yes, Mindy Cohn), Dash Mihok, Neil Flynn, Sophie Monk, Frances Fisher and Patton Oswalt, who gets a laugh almost every moment he’s onscreen. Many names on the list are recognizable as references to other films (Carlotta Valdes? Jackie Shawn?) which could have partially inspired this one, some look to be names from films that Waters himself wrote, one is named “Greta Samsa” which is just…weird. There’s also a famous lesbian power couple named Bambi Kidd and Thumper Wynt and I can’t help but love the implications in that one (If you don’t get that reference, I can’t help you).
Daniel Waters appeared after the film for a ridiculously long q & a, but one that was hugely enjoyable to sit through. He spoke about his past films (HEATHERS, BATMAN RETURNS and his three for producer Joel Silver), why it’s taken so long between projects as well as addressing the subject of the never-made HEATHERS 2. He addressed the nature of his creative style, describing it as “the middle ground between Luis Bunuel and Harold Ramis, with that being a good indication of why it is sometimes difficult to get a grip, tonally, on what he’s going for. The film was shot in Los Angeles on a low-budget and he mentioned (Jokingly? Tough to tell) that he had at one point considered setting the film in Vancouver, just for the hell of it. This jab at runaway production got some applause from the crowd. He seemed like a guy who would be great to sit down and talk with for a while and though he was bemoaning how long the session was going on for, I had no complaints.
The evocative line, “Too true to be good,” turns up at one point, even appearing on the poster, and is in certain ways representative of the film itself. It disregards certain notions of what is expected in romantic comedies these days making it tough to always get a handle on where it’s going. Some may be turned off, but it’s willingness to walk a certain tightrope makes SEX AND DEATH 101 unexpectedly honest and the direction it winds up going in is ultimately satisfying.