Judge Daniel MacDonald tried to bring sexy back, but just ended up with mildly appealing and slightly sticky.
Because life has its ups and downs.
It's never a good sign when a film featuring a fairly high profile cast makes its way stealthily to DVD six years after being completed. Such is the case with Speaking of Sex, a sex farce from director John McNaughton (Wild Things). Was it simply misunderstood by the studio, or should it have stayed on the shelf a while longer?
Facts of the Case
Married couple Melinda (Melora Walters, Boogie Nights) and Dan (Jay Mohr, Jerry Maguire) find themselves in therapy, overseen by the contained and confident Dr. Emily Paige (Lara Flynn Boyle, The Temp), in an attempt to get past Dan's trouble in the bedroom. After a less than successful initial visit, Dr. Paige sends Melinda to a "depression expert," Dr. Roger Klink (James Spader, sex, lies, and videotape).
As it happens, Melinda shows up at Dr. Klink's office on the day he has left his wife, and the two end up having "steamy" sex in an elevator. Dr. Paige is at first amazed by how much progress Dr. Klink has made with the patient, but once she finds out his methods, she convinces Melinda and Dan to sue the good doctor for an obscene amount of money.
Melinda and Dan end up with a high-powered lawyer in the form of Connie Barker (Catherine O'Hara, Best In Show), while the insurance company sends the eccentric and unflappable Ezri Stovall (Bill Murray, Rushmore). Zaniness ensues as a videotape of Melinda's explicit testimony is leaked, making local celebrities of Dan and Dr. Klink. New relationships are joined, guns go off, and a police standoff finishes off the proceedings.
Speaking Of Sex should have been a better movie than what it is. It's hard to say what happened: it's got a fabulous cast, with Bill Murray's sardonic presence easily elevating every scene he's in and Catherine O'Hara exuding a surprising amount of sexiness; it features an original, literate script chock full with clever turns of phrase; and it's from the talented director of Mad Dog and Glory and Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Yet, despite all it's got going for it, one key element is missing to make it successful: laughs.
Not that I never chuckled. There were a handful of genuinely amusing moments, and the second and third acts of the picture were regularly entertaining. But the tone set in the early scenes is that of wacky, loud histrionics, and despite the actors efforts to keep the energy level up, most of the film seems flat and, occasionally, aggressively unfunny.
The biggest flaw seems to be that none of the actors—save for Murray and O'Hara—appears to be in the same movie. Spader's Dr. Klink is a mannered, bumbling, over-the-top fool who seems like he would have trouble tying his shoes. If all of the performances had the same tenor, fine, but as it is I didn't believe he could possibly be a doctor of any kind, much less a successful psychologist. Walters, who knocked it out of the park in Magnolia, is great when she's playing coy, but at other times her line readings sound like they're being read off of a cue card. And for some reason, Jay Mohr finds it necessary to shout every line, as if he had little faith in the sound department's capabilities. I don't blame the actors for the inconsistencies, though: McNaughton is the one who needs to set the tone of the picture and ensure everyone's on the same page. I'm not sure what his big picture vision was here, but I doubt the end result is a close approximation of it.
The pace just never seems to be right, either. The short, pithy scenes are the best, but longer exchanges like Melinda's first visit to Dr. Klink start out strong, then slowly have the air let out of them. All the clever, frank sex talk in the world can't sustain a scene once it's past its prime.
The DVD features a decent anamorphic transfer, showing off the understated but clever camera work of Ralf Bode (Coal Miner's Daughter), and serviceable 2-channel stereo sound. No special features are included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the film as a whole is not a success, it was more entertaining than I was expecting. After getting through a few rough patches, the story picks up momentum and I began to really care about the characters and what was going to happen with them. I was surprised by a number of the twists and turns of the narrative, and applaud the cunning use of language. The script is sharp and original, and I suspect was rather promising on the page, hence all of the talent it attracted.
Bill Murray and Catherine O'Hara have to do more films together. Their easy chemistry and similar comic instincts are absolutely the hidden treasure of this work, and I found myself missing their presence every time they weren't onscreen. And Lara Flynn Boyle equips herself well here too, taking a somewhat underdeveloped character and giving her an implied depth and complexity that is suggested by nothing but the actress herself.
And the camera work is very nicely done, with warm naturalistic lighting and simple but effective moves. The Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bode passed away after filming this picture, a sad loss to the industry.
Overall, Speaking Of Sex wouldn't make a bad date movie (although probably not on the first date), as it's got an interesting plot, some amusing innuendo, and an entertaining cast, even if it never quite lives up to its potential. I worked on this movie for a few days when it shot here in Calgary, Alberta, and was quite looking forward to seeing it because of its cast; Unfortunately, I can't give it a whole hearted recommendation.
The filmmakers are sentenced to watching A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy over and over until they figure out what went wrong.
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