Besides its own modest pleasures, we have to thank the Australian comedy "Better Than Sex" for inspiring the funniest line of movie criticism in recent memory. Writing in the New Republic about the (relative) explicitness of "Better Than Sex" and "Intimacy," Stanley Kauffmann said, "The dividing line between these films and pornography is clear and generally accepted: pornography involves the visible entry of something into something." The sheer ambiguity of that euphemism sets the imagination on a far dirtier course than the common words Kauffmann is avoiding. It conjures up visions of a smutty round of "Mad-Libs" ("slide trombone" ... "poop chute"), or of Tom Cruise in "Born on the Fourth of July," taunting his repressed mother to bring herself to say the word "penis." ("Come on, Stanley, you can do it -- PENIS!")
And it's just that sort of proper approach to sex that has been deadly for movies that try to treat the subject with some natural candor. "Better Than Sex" could be better than it is, but the writer-director Jonathan Teplitzsky is trying to combine candor with the stylization of romantic comedy -- not a negligible goal. It could be funnier, sharper, more probing, but at its best it is sexy, and that's always something to celebrate.
The jokes in "Better Than Sex" -- like the jokes in the relationship movies that Woody Allen and others made in the '70s -- come from the lovers' endless need to analyze and second-guess themselves instead of trusting their instincts. Cin, a dress designer (Susie Porter), and Josh, a wildlife photographer (David Wenham), meet at a Sydney party, share a taxi and adjourn to her flat for an uncomplicated one-night stand. Josh has relocated to London and, since he's leaving in three days, neither figures that there's any pressure involved. The sex is terrific, and one night stretches into the next day, and the one after that. It just feels too good to stop.
Teplitzsky is trying to evoke the casual pressure of a fling, the way you feel as if you're luxuriating in sex at the same time that the knowledge that it has to end feeds a passion for more. He uses voiceovers to allow us to eavesdrop on the thoughts of these new lovers. One of the funniest bits occurs about 24 hours in when they're both, as the English say, all shagged out, needing some rest and both worrying that each other wants more. And then, since Little Elvis has not left the building, they bring him out for an encore anyway.
Teplitzsky is marvelously free about his lovers' bodies (though, a tad primly I thought, he avoids showing us their genitals) as they loll in bed or walk around Cin's airy loft with the sun pouring in on them. Some of the sexiest moments are the simplest -- her toes, nails painted red and sporting a ring, massaging the back of his neck, his feet holding up a pillow as they lie back in bed chatting, a beautiful tilting show of their heads jutting into the frame from opposite directions -- hers on top -- as they kiss with a lazy hunger.
The sex is more suggested than shown but suggested in a way that leaves no doubt as to what the lovers are doing. Teplitzsky knows that the usual tasteful romantic embrace is a copout. We see Cin pinching her nipples to heighten her excitement, or her face, turned-on and nervous, as she lies in bed while Josh slips down out of the frame (and we hear her worrying that she'll come too fast or not at all). Or we see Josh's face expressing much the same thing as they take a bath together and Cin's head bobs above the rim of the tub. (The sexiest, frankest moment -- handled discreetly but frank nonetheless -- happens after he comes and she kisses him on the lips.) Those may seem like trifling things but they're precisely the sort of bracingly recognizable moments that filmmakers or actors have timidly avoided (or shied away from for fear of having to cut them for ratings reasons); it's no small matter to go to the movies and feel that some measure of life as you know it is taking place on the screen.
Teplitzsky punctuates the movie with straight-to-the-camera comments by Cin and Josh, which are generally fine, and montages of comments by their male and female friends, which are uneven. Not unexpectedly, the women are more interesting to me than the men (maybe for the same reason that women may find the men more interesting). The problem is that these interludes break the established mood and you want to stay in that loft, following the course of the encounter, the rising and falling waves of passion, surrender, self-protection. (The same is true of a loft visit from Cin's best friend, though the character is very well played by Catherine McClements.)
"Better Than Sex" becomes about how Cin and Josh start toying with the idea of something more but are too scared to admit it to each other or to themselves. But here Teplitzsky's reliance on voice-overs becomes a problem: You want to watch the pair's halting attempts to address their burgeoning desires. The movie never transcends its pleasing casualness right when you want it to start burrowing down. Wenham, sandy-blond with a prominent nose and on the handsome side of being just slightly goofy, is affable enough, laid back but not too cool to care, and you never doubt he's a decent guy. (Josh is lucky enough to make one unpardonable comment out of Cin's hearing: "Who looks at shoes?" he asks himself as she's dithering getting ready to go out. Big mistake. The best advice a woman has ever given me, a boon for shoeshine men everywhere, is that women always notice men's shoes.)
But Wenham isn't much more beyond agreeable, and maybe he's at a disadvantage because Susie Porter is such a knockout. There are times when all the emotion in the movie seems radiating from Porter's freckled skin. When we see her bare back as she sits on the edge of her bed, or when she's seated playing the piano, the camera draws closer and closer to her as if it could imagine nothing more delicious than caressing her. Porter has a crop of short blond hair, full lips with deep corners and big, teardrop-shaped eyes that give her a fresh from the lily pad look (it must be something freckled lookers share -- Molly Parker had it in "Kissed" and Sissy Spacek in "Carrie"). She seems as if she's always blinking sleep from her eyes and yet, at the same time, as if she has keenly grasped the undercurrents of everything happening around her. Porter plays Cin as neither tough nor vulnerable but as confident and competent, though with an air of familiar uncertainty. In other words, she seems as aware and as confused about sex as any smart person you know, and she's the key to why the movie, at its best, feels like it's about the way life is lived now. "Better Than Sex" isn't up to its heroine, but it's a special sort of disappointment. The movie's small successes are so pleasing you're sorry that Teplitzsky never found the sensational movie lurking somewhere inside.