SAN DIEGO COUNTY : MOVIE REVIEW : Compelling Cast of Characters in ‘sex, lies . . . videotape’

Times Film Critic

With enviable single-mindedness, the two handsome couples in Steven Soderbergh’s electrifying psycho-sexual comedy occupy themselves with sex, with lies and with videotape, in a film of exactly that name. It’s the funniest and saddest American movie since Jim Jarmusch landed straight in the middle of our consciousness, and it’s possibly the most compelling. (“Sex, lies and videotape” is now opening at San Diego area theaters.)

Beginning in a therapy session, with the deceptively offhanded remark by a beautiful young wife (Andie MacDowell) that everything is fine in her marriage, except that she’s, well, “kinda going through this thing where I don’t want him to touch me,” the secrets that tumble out are commonplace enough. They’re the stuff that Dear Abby readers drink in with their morning coffee; they are also a catalogue of upscale affliction: infidelity, obsession, jealousy, impotence, sexual repression and a large dollop of voyeurism.

It’s Soderbergh’s elegant manner of revealing these . . . contemporary inconveniences, and of pushing his characters into deeper and deeper psychological water, that creates the film’s tranquil spell. As writer, director and editor, his control is mesmerizing. It’s also more than a little creepy; as though Soderbergh were drawing us, a step at a time, into a warm pool where intimate secrets flowed back and forth as simply as currents of water. Feel uneasy about what you may hear? Lie back and float, everything will be all right.


Well, although this isn’t Brian De Palma voyeurism or David Lynch creepiness, sometimes it feels as though nothing will be all right. With brilliant economy, Soderbergh lets us see that MacDowell’s husband (Peter Gallagher) is a creep in a three-piece suit, that her perfect marriage is a hollow disaster and that she is sleepwalking to keep from knowing it.

And that’s before Gallagher’s old college buddy (James Spader) arrives for a visit. The men make unlikely friends today. The ultimate yuppie puppy, Gallagher has the arrogance that comes with being a law partner at 30, and the sexual combativeness that’s led him into a volcanic affair with an artist-cum-bartender (Laura San Giacomo), who happens to be his wife’s younger sister.

Blond and quiet-spoken, Spader is open, disingenuously inquiring, almost a ‘60s throwback--the sort who takes pride in his lack of possessions. Though there is every reason to believe that he is a trust-fund bum, he has blown into Baton Rouge with little more than a change of clothes, a beater convertible, his video camera and a couple of boxes of personal videotapes. If there is something intense about him that puts people off-balance, there is an equal quality that makes them trust him. Especially women.

He intrigues MacDowell, volunteered by her husband to help Spader find an apartment. It might be a classic setup, except that, as Spader explains to her over a delicately probing lunch, he is impotent. Or at least he can’t get an erection in the presence of another person, which is as good as impotence. If this disclosure widens her lovely eyes, wait until she asks him idly what’s on all his tapes, each with a girl’s name? And to what use he puts them?

And that is Soderbergh’s setup. What is not apparent from a thumbnail description is the film’s lacerating wit, its beautiful look and sound, and the bravura quality to each performance. Or the terrible vein of melancholy that Soderbergh touches.

It’s also worth mentioning that only one character in four (MacDowell) could be called sympathetic. The perfectly matched Gallagher and San Giacomo deserve one another, and isn’t Spader’s helpless voyeurism pathetic? Weird? Bizarro? Perhaps, but that will become the fulcrum of the story.

It’s no wonder that “sex, lies and videotape,” as well as Spader, took the Golden Palm at Cannes this spring, although it’s sad that MacDowell’s supple, shaded brilliance went unrewarded. This is an American movie that feels French. All this low-key unburdening of sexual trauma. All this talk, punctuated by all these bedroom gymnastics, and not a lethal weapon in sight. (Actually, not a lot of nudity, either, for a film as drenched in sex as this one, MPAA-rated R. It’s Gallagher’s character who is crass; his creator is discreet.)

If “sex, lies” did not go on to crash through a pair of long-standing psychological barriers as definitively as it does, it would be as creepy as Spader appears to be, as impotently teasing and as uselessly intimate. It’s Soderbergh’s ability to push his story to its furthest limits that makes it so arresting.

Before it burst on Cannes, “sex, lies and videotape” knocked filmgoers into the snowbanks at the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah, coincidentally with a complete retrospective of John Cassavetes’ career.

It might seem that, in his own distinct way, Soderbergh is the young American director most clearly in the vein of the dark, deeply missed Cassavetes. Both men, from the very first films of their careers, have demanded that we take a real look at our lives behind the “Shadows,” or insulated by “sex, lies and videotape.”

‘sex, lies and videotape’

A Miramax Films release of an Outlaw production. Producer Robert Newmyer, John Hardy. Executive producers Nancy Tenenbaum, Nick Wechsler, Morgan Mason. Writer, director Steven Soderbergh. Camera Walt Lloyd. Music Cliff Martinez. Art direction Joanne Schmidt, set decoration Victoria Spader. Costumes James Ryder. Sound Paul Ledford. Assistant director Michael Dempsey. With James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo, Steven Brill, Ron Vawter.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).