In "Love & Sex," Kate (Famke Janssen), a young magazine writer who's on her own after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, slumps in her office cubicle after her boss has threatened to fire her. On her desk, we glimpse pictures of her cats (the patron saints of single women everywhere), but these aren't just ordinary snapshots: There are four of them, each one of a different feline, individually framed and measuring around 5-by-7 each -- They're more like actors' head shots than your typical kitty pics.
That's the kind of detail, made almost fantastical by witty exaggeration, that sets Valerie Breiman's beguiling "Love & Sex" apart from any other romantic comedy made in the past few years. This not-quite-a-debut (Breiman has directed two other films, 1989's "Going Overboard" and 1993's "Bikini Squad") has none of the paint-by-numbers torpidity of Nora Ephron's work ("Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail"), which, sadly, has set the standard for the genre over the past decade or so.
Breiman is a spiritual cousin to Preston Sturges: She's nowhere near as freewheeling, unhinged and maniacally brilliant, but she does have a taste for the absurd, and an understanding of the notion that almost everything else in the world makes more sense than love.
At the beginning of "Love & Sex," Kate's boss, an egomaniacal magazine editor played with relish by Ann Magnuson, expresses dismay that Kate has turned in an article on blow jobs as a cure for depression. Kate's defense is that blow jobs are just about the only thing she understands about relationships, but her editor sends her back to write something more upbeat, or she's fired.
When she sits down to rewrite the story by rambling into a tape recorder, we think we're going to get a litany of years' worth of lousy boyfriends and first dates gone wrong, and that is part of it. Kate doesn't lack for unsuitable suitors. As Janssen plays her (terrifically), Kate, with her disheveled hair and chic-sloppy clothes, looks like the kind of unassuming beauty who just can't hold anything together, who attracts so many clusters of men that the right ones sometimes find themselves stuck on the outside, like lost planets that can't get close enough to the sun.
But most of the story involves Kate's relationship with an idiosyncratic painter named Adam (Jon Favreau, from "Swingers") and the aftermath of their breakup. Kate and Adam meet when she shows up at his art opening with a self-involved loser she's dating, and their attraction is clear from the start. But from the beginning his behavior is the sort of thing that sets off warning bells for any single girl, potentially speaking of insurmountable insecurities and an insatiable craving for attention.
He practically kidnaps Kate from the arms of her (admittedly all wrong) date. Later, when they go out for a bite to eat, he comments on her "E.T. fingers," moving on to note how tree-frog-like they are, and from there to ascertain her shoe size. Women's size 11?" he asks incredulously, agog, as Kate fairly folds herself up in embarrassment. It's a type of teasing that may or may not be devastatingly hostile at its roots, the kind of thing that many single women (and probably many men) learn to be wary of, if they're smart.
At this point in the story, we can't read Adam's character any better than Kate can; we feel protective of her because we see she's beginning to like him in spite of herself -- but what's harder to accept is that maybe we are, too, even though we have no evidence that he's not a complete jerk.
And that's the thing that makes "Love & Sex" work so beautifully: Breiman (who also wrote the script) gives us attractive, charismatic leads with psyches we can't sum up in their first five minutes on-screen. Breiman, unlike Ephron or that director's more-appealing colleague, romantic-comedy newcomer Bonnie Hunt ("Return to Me"), doesn't consciously mine the territory of romantic-comedy tradition. Instead, she seems to have it in her blood: "Love & Sex" feels resolutely modern the same way that, say, David O. Russell's "Flirting with Disaster" does, but it has a great deal more heart. It's sharply chiseled but not cynical, and that's a delicate line to walk.
Without giving too much of the story away, it's hard to explain how Adam's initially obnoxious behavior slides almost imperceptibly into likeability. Although they're very different creatures, the comparison that springs to mind is Barbara Stanwyck's character in Sturges' "The Lady Eve" -- they're both so rough and so maddeningly opaque at the start that we're not entirely sure we're going to be able to love them.
But well before Adam and Kate drift apart, we see how even though his insecurities sometimes run rampant, they never completely obscure the woman who's standing in front of him. Favreau brings layers of intelligence and intuitiveness to the role. With his wire-rimmed glasses and bowed lips, he plays Adam as the thinking girl's teddy bear, though not an immediately scrutable one: When Kate demands to know the meaning of one of his paintings, he deadpans that it's a headless woman "pulling a severed head out of her ass" (which is exactly what it looks like). He's also charmingly stocky, and his un-leading-man-like build is part of his appeal -- it's what makes him so funny when, in response to Kate's flirtatious teasing, he intones, "Don't poke the bear in the zoo! Don't poke the bear in the zoo!"
Janssen and Favreau have an unusual chemistry: They banter and argue and have terrific sex, but they don't fit so perfectly as a couple, in terms of both physical appearance and temperament, that we're altogether reassured that they'll make it. And the peaks and troughs of their relationship are all informed by one overarching concern: the protectiveness that we feel for Janssen's Kate, almost from the first frame.
This is the first time Janssen, an actress who's always thrown off promising sparks (especially in the horror-comedy "The Faculty"), has had a role worthy of her, and she vests Kate with a gangly vulnerability -- in terms of her physical grace, she's like a supermodel completely in touch with her inner Olive Oyl. It's always difficult for a staggeringly beautiful actress to play at being lovelorn. The average woman wants desperately to believe that gorgeous women never lack for dates. (It was a charge leveled most pointedly, and very unfairly, at Michele Pfeiffer's character in "Frankie and Johnny.")
But even outside the logic that women who attract more men will naturally attract more no-goodniks, anyone can be unlucky in love: Cupid is a notoriously indiscriminate marksman. Janssen never comes off as either pitifully unsure of herself or overconfident of her looks. When she and a friend (the tartly amusing Cheri Oteri) riffle through her closet in search of something for her to wear to a party, she rejects an audacious red number, claiming that she doesn't want to look like a drug-addicted hooker: "No, I want to look great -- like a drug-addicted model." It would be disingenuous for Kate to pretend she's not attractive, but the way Janssen tosses off the line hints at the insecurities that lurk in every woman's heart.
Janssen's such a touching romantic-comedy heroine precisely because she never begs us to love her -- or to feel sorry for her. Her broad smile doesn't sizzle off the screen the way Julia Roberts' does; it's low key and smoldering, more of an invitation than a command. And at the end of "Love & Sex," after we've been dangled off the edge of a precipice, led to believe that perhaps we won't get a happy ending here, we're satisfied that of all the possible types of happiness there are in the world, Kate's found the one that's right for her.
There are times when Cupid may as well be a nutcase stationed in a bell tower with a shotgun for all that he seems to care whom he hits. And there are other times when, miraculously, he strikes it just right. If the same goes for movies, then "Love & Sex" hits the target. The arrow may be a trick one, wayward and wobbly, but in the end, its aim is true.