"The Opposite of Sex"

For all its clever twists, 'The Opposite of Sex' turns a pretty cheap trick.


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Cynthia Joyce
May 22, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

From the very first voice-over in Don Roos' irreverent new comedy, "The Opposite of Sex," it's clear this isn't the kind of movie that wants you to care about any of its characters. "If you think I'm just plucky," warns DeDee Truitt (Christina Ricci), the film's sardonic central character, "then you're out of luck. I DON'T have a heart of gold, and I'm NOT going to get one."

The point of this obnoxious little tirade is to fly in the face of Hollywood convention, to make viewers aware of their expectations -- and by extension, their demands -- for reasons, or redemption, or some kind of resolution. But too often, the narration causes the opposite to happen: It's the film, not the viewer, that feels self-conscious.

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DeDee Truitt is a trash-talking, troublemaking 16-year-old whose hateful stepfather has just died of colon cancer ("couldn't have been a more appropriate way for that asshole to go," deadpans the remorseless DeDee). Leaving her mother behind in Lousiana, DeDee seeks refuge at the home of her half-brother, Bill (Martin Donovan), a well-respected, openly gay high school teacher in South Bend, Ind. Although Bill still mourns the death of his stockbroker boyfriend, Tom, who died of AIDS and left him all his money, he has tried to rebuild a life with Matt (Ivan Sergei), a beautiful but daft 24-year-old who is 10 years his junior ("sometimes just nine, depending on the month," Matt helpfully points out).

Bill, being the quintessential good guy chump (in one early scene, he corrects the grammar of the obscenities written about him on the bathroom wall while the offending student looks on), agrees to let DeDee stay with him and Matt for the summer. It's not long before DeDee plants the seed in Matt's feeble mind that maybe he's not gay after all (the first in a series of somewhat insulting implausibilities), and soon Matt is blowing off his job at Kinko's almost every afternoon to explore that possibility while Bill is away at summer school. When DeDee announces that she's pregnant, Matt can't quite piece together how it happened, what with their meticulous use of condoms; still, he is thrilled at the possibility that he will now have a "normal" family life, and breaks it to Bill that he's in love with Bill's little sister. Matt genuinely wants Bill's blessing; DeDee, however, just wants his money, and persuades Matt to steal $10,000 from him "for the baby," and they take off for Los Angeles with the money as well as Tom's ashes, which DeDee uses to further blackmail Bill.

The drama quickly escalates into fairly standard screwball comedy/adventure fare, as Bill and Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), Tom's sister and Bill's best friend, try to figure out what to do. Bill would just as soon forgive and forget, but Lucia won't allow it; she spends her time offering him counsel and secretly hoping that he'll fall for her. Meanwhile, Bill discovers that Matt had been sleeping with one of his former students, Jason, a high school dropout played by Johnny Galecki (Darlene's adorable but angst-ridden boyfriend on "Roseanne"). Suspecting that Bill drove Matt away, Jason threatens to sue Bill for sexual harassment if he doesn't put him in touch with Matt. A huge scandal ensues, and Bill is forced to track Matt and DeDee down so that he can clear his name.

For all its jarring twists and overly clever tactics, "The Opposite of Sex" does manage to make some pretty poignant remarks about most people's moral confusion when it comes to abortion, AIDS and gay sexuality. The most fertile ground for this is the way everyone responds to DeDee's unborn baby. Everybody has ideas about what's good for The Baby. Everything DeDee does is another chance for Lucia to scold, "That can't be good for The Baby," even though Lucia clearly doesn't give a damn about the welfare of the mother-to-be. ("What do you care?" demands DeDee. "Or was that someone else who suggested abortion?") And though Matt eventually realizes that he is gay, he still suspects that caring for The Baby is his only shot at having a "normal" life.

DeDee's wry observations, which she offers throughout the film, are dead-on about half the time ("If you're with a guy that snickered when Matt kisses Bill, you're with a closet-case homophobe. That's not good"). The rest of the time, they're meant to shock and/or offend, but they're mostly just annoying ("What, did you think I'd end up dead? C'mon, I'm the fucking narrator -- keep up, guys!").

The problem with this in-your-face filmmaking style is that it works a little too well. Instead of merely being made aware of their expectations, audiences are made to feel ashamed of them. So when DeDee finally gets a dose of what's coming to her, for instance, there's no point in feeling sorry for her -- we've already been told not to expect any transformation from her. In fact, there's no point in feeling much of anything, except perhaps disappointment that she didn't get it even worse. And although Ricci does bring considerable depth to her character (as do Kudrow and Donovan to their respective roles), it's not enough to make her incessant blatherings any less irritating.

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If the characters seem a little one-dimensional (bad girl, good guy, old maid, etc.), indeed they are. But by juxtaposing such stark characters, Roos parodies the hypocrisy of a politically correct value system founded on fraudulent categories of pure good and pure evil. As each character eventually demonstrates, a person's worst qualities are usually just their best qualities taken to the extreme. There's the all good, all-forgiving gay man whose Christlike tolerance is ultimately self-destructive (not to mention maddening to those around him); the brazen little brat whose survival instincts have taught her how to manipulate others; the bitter, hard-up schoolmarm who's afraid of getting what she wants and in love with someone she can never have; and the easygoing bombshell boy-toy who trusts too easily.

If Roos' point is to blow up stereotypes until they explode, one wonders why he would cast a known hetero as a drama queen. While Donovan is completely convincing as a gay man -- precisely because he doesn't act like a stereotypical gay man at all -- Galecki's Jason feels completely false and embarrassingly overdone as the flamboyant drama queen.

Internal inconsistencies aside, there are plenty of funny moments, most of them courtesy of Kudrow, who is a constant crackup as the lonely and self-pitying Lucia ("She once had a life," DeDee's voice-over offers, "but she stopped feeding it, so it just went away"). Berating Bill for allowing himself to be taken advantage of, Lucia barks, "You think you're being nice, but it's really self-destructive. It's like you have a death wish. I do too, but I direct mine toward other people." Even when Lucia attracts the attention of Sheriff Carl Tippett, an earnest -- and available -- straight man (Lyle Lovett), she can barely tear her thoughts away from Bill. Frustrated, Carl lays his theory of sex on the line: "Suppose sex isn't about recreation, or procreation, but concentration ... I want to be the one you look for first in every crowded room."

The most trying thing about "Sex" is not that DeDee's constant narrative interruptions are ineffective, but that they're just not necessary. There are some great and memorable moments, but no sooner has the moment happened than we get Ricci's grating commentary. Sure, much of the time it's amusing, but it's like hanging out with a witty and cynical friend for too long -- they're great to be around until you realize that no, in fact, they don't have anything better to do.

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It's this cynicism that ultimately betrays Roos' bad faith, as if he intended for these moments to be taken seriously, but then panicked and backed off -- if it works, great, if it doesn't, say you were just joking and call it a dark comedy. It's straight from the "you can complain about your cake and eat it too" school of writing. "The Opposite of Sex" mocks you for wanting a Hollywood ending -- but then it gives you one anyway.

Roos' knack for this kind of emotional sabotage has been put to use in slightly more subtle ways in two previous films he's written, "Boys on the Side" (directed by Herbert Ross) and "Single White Female" (directed by Barbet Schroeder). Both of those films delivered the kind of hackneyed tear-jerking scenes and predictable cliffhangers that "Opposite of Sex" works so hard to avoid.

Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore (Ricci's Bad Girl predecessor), "Boys on the Side" was part screwball comedy, part melodrama, with plenty of female frolicking of the singin' 'n' toenail-paintin' variety to offer a respite from the more ominous themes of AIDS and death. "Single White Female" was a psychological thriller whose only real victims were expendable characters anyway -- a helpless and adorable puppy who falls from a high-rise window and an equally helpless and adorable gay neighbor who incurs the deadly wrath of the psychotic roommate, played by (who else?) Jennifer Jason Leigh. Could it be that with "The Opposite of Sex," Roos was exorcising some of his own bitterness about what he felt were ultimately cheap sellouts based on his material? Of his directorial debut, Roos has said, "It's like having a child and raising it yourself rather than having a child and letting someone raise it while you watch through a chain-link fence." Hopefully, he'll allow his next child to grow up a little first, and trust that it can walk on its own.

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Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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