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Review: 'The Opposite of Sex' offers satire with bite

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Writer/director Don Roos' "The Opposite of Sex" is easily the most cynical, inflammatory comedy I've seen in the last five or six years, and I was pleased to no end that it had the gumption to never let up for a second.

The movie, which, to some degree, is actually a sunny-looking film noir, not only goes after its main characters in comically brutal, unflattering ways, but also has the guts to ridicule the film-going public's predetermined expectations of what a movie is supposed to offer them. Or, as Christina Ricci, who brilliantly embodies the story's misanthropic teen-age femme fatale, comments in an audience-directed voiceover at one point -- "I don't have a heart of gold, and I don't grow one later."

"The Opposite of Sex" is loaded with this type of narration, which is used more as a direct line to the people in the seats than as a device to keep the story moving ahead. Like Randy Newman's best songs, it implicates the audience by making them laugh at despicable characters who, when you pause to think about it, are not all that far removed from the people who are doing the laughing. It's a smart, razor-sharp attack on conventional mores that's full of great performances. And, as a huge bonus, it's also funny as hell.

Ricci shakes things up

Ricci stars as Dedee Truitt, a rather pug-like bombshell who's doing what she can to escape the life that circumstances have consigned her to. After her stepfather dies (Ricci's belligerent overhand chuck of a handful of dirt into the open grave, and resulting wrestling match with her weeping mother, are early clues to the movie's tone), she sets out to start a new life with her gay half-brother, Bill, played by laid-back Hal Hartley regular Martin Donovan. Bill's a nice, unassuming schoolteacher in a nice, unassuming small town, but he's got a hot boyfriend named Matt (Ivan Sergei, in a very inventive performance), and that's enough for Dedee to start turning everything upside down.

It's not long before Dedee seduces Matt, but she does so with our complete cooperation. We're told from the outset that she's looking to shake things up, and her systematic reduction of a gay man to a temporarily heterosexual breast-obsessive is fun to watch. Matt, as Dedee tells us, isn't all that bright, and he's soon eating out of her hand for all the wrong reasons. He becomes convinced that he's crossed over to the other side, and runs away with Dedee when she tells him that she's pregnant. Oh, yeah -- the happy couple also takes Bill's dead lover's ashes off the mantel and holds them for a $10,000 ransom.

Clip: Pregnancy revealved
1Mb QuickTime movie

Clip: Lovett and Kudrow
2Mb QuickTime movie

Actual must-see acting

This act draws the deceased party's sister, Lucia, into the full of the story. With "Must See TV"'s Lisa Kudrow as Lucia, we finally have a castmember from "Friends" who's appearing in a genuine piece of "must see" filmmaking. Kudrow, thankfully by now, gets to abandon the blonde airhead shtick in favor of a woman who's angry at the world, afraid of sex, and probably in love with Bill.

Lucia is distrustful of Dedee the minute she shows up, and now, as she and Bill take out after the ill-fated "couple," her exasperation over the incongruities in her life starts to fester. "This is why I hate people," she barks at one point, and you can't help but momentarily agree with her. Again, the humor digs its barbs into both the characters and the people who are supposed to be judging them.

Throw into the stew Matt's former boyfriend who (as another means of blackmail) lies, telling the school board that he was molested as a student by Bill, and things are at a full screwball boil. In fact, a lot of the one-liners play like rock-n-roll versions of the best 1930s screwball dialogue. When the squirming blackmailer informs Bill of his plans, stating that, for all he knows, Bill has killed the mysteriously unavailable Matt and Dedee, Bill laconically responds, "For all you know, I'm just getting started." That shuts him up, but not for long. Bill is eventually forced to twist the guy's newly pierced nipple to get him off his back.

There's also a doomed hick boyfriend of Dedee's and a highway patrolman (played by Lyle Lovett!) who's got the hots for Lucia. The pace isn't as hectic as you might expect, judging from the number of potential complications in this setup, so the movie manages to avoid falling victim to mounting hysteria. Things get incredibly dark, but then there's an unexpectedly less-than-bitter denouement that lightens the mood a little bit without necessarily deflating the hearty ill will that preceded it. This is the best comedy so far in 1998, a respite from the summer hot dog festival, and a sure-handed first feature from a director who may end up being around for a while. See it if you dare.

"The Opposite of Sex" contains bad language and a lot of sexual debating, but no nudity. There's also the nasty results of a shooting. Even the nice people in it aren't really altogether nice, just like in real life, and this may be too much for some people to handle if they're looking for a so-called "summer" comedy. Whatever that is. Rated R. 105 minutes.

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