FILM

Sweet and sour sex

Brian D. Johnson August 31 1998
FILM

Sweet and sour sex

Brian D. Johnson August 31 1998

Sweet and sour sex

FILM

In the summer, Hollywood seems determined to reduce us all to children. But now, with the season of overheated blockbusters winding down, here are two smart little movies for adults that break the summer stupor with the nip of a cool night breeze. Both are sharply original character-driven stories by young American writer-directors. Both are sex comedies, and both are about embarrassment. But they are wildly different. Slums of Beverly Hills is the tale of a teenage girl discovering her sexuality in the crowded confines of a nomadic, single-father family in the 1970s. It is a comedy of compassion—a funny, truthful coming-ofage memoir. Your Friends & Neighbors is a comedy of cruelty—a savagely cynical portrait of six urbanites negotiating infidelity.

Slums of Beverly Hills is much easier to take. It begins with that famous Tolstoy quote about unhappy families all being unhappy in their own way. And as America reels from the tawdry saga in the White House, it is refreshing to see a movie that can tackle sex and family in the same breath without sliding into a moral abyss.

Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne) is a 15-year-old struggling with her emerging womanhood in a family where she is the only female. Her divorced father, Murray (Alan Arkin), is a down-and-out salesman struggling to retain his dignity, and his 90210 zip code. He drags Vivian and her two brothers from one squalid apartment to another, often moving in the middle of the night to avoid the rent, while insisting that their address remain within the city limits of Beverly Hills—because of its schools.

We follow Vivian’s humiliations as her father forces her to buy her first brassiere, and as she boldly takes it off for the boy next door, a fresh-faced dope dealer who is obsessed with Charles Manson. Vivian’s sex education then shifts into overdrive when her wild, drug-addicted cousin, Rita (Marisa Tomei), comes to stay. The humor is often broad—a menstrual crisis at the dinner table, Vivian and Rita discodancing with a vibrator in their bedroom, Vivian’s older brother rehearsing for Guys and Dolls in his underwear. But Slums of Beverly Hills is not just another gag-fest. First-time director Tamara Jenkins has loosely based the material on her own adolescence in the low-rent outskirts of Beverly Hills. And those real-life underpinnings show—in the kitschy details, in the sudden bursts of pathos and in the well-drawn characters.

Brian D. Johnson

Lyonne is a delight in the lead role. As the salesman who will not say die, Arkin proves that he is one of the most underrated actors in America. Tomei salvages the film’s one cartoonish role with a frisky exuberance. And as a mean-spirited uncle, Carl Reiner delivers a knockout cameo, a dramatic scene that undercuts the humor with devastating effect. Directing with style and verve, Jenkins has created a crowd-pleasing comedy that taps emotional depths without sentimental trickery. And it portrays a neighborhood rarely seen in the movies—the crossroads between a girl coming of age and a single father who is simply aging.

Your Friends & Neighbors is set in an ageless, childless world of middle-class achievers trying to upgrade their sex lives. While Slums of Beverly Hills is about a young woman who is worried about her breasts (too large), this movie is about men who fret about their penises (too small). And in the Bill-and-Monica era of graceless infidelity, it strikes a disturbing chord—a story of myopic men with blundering sex drives and the misguided women who end up with them. Director Neil LaBute made an acidic splash with his feature debut last year, a vicious little black comedy called In the Company of Men. Its scenario, in which two male managers conspire to take advantage of a deaf typist, had critics arguing over whether it was feminist or misogynist. Your Friends & Neighbors pursues similar themes on a broader canvas.

Once again, while the director’s sympathies appear to be with the women, the film serves as a satirical X-ray of male sexuality. An ensemble cast of three men and three women play out the script’s symmetrical intrigue, but the men are clearly in the foreground. They are specific types. Jerry (Ben Stiller) is an academic weenie who lamely tries to seduce his friend’s wife, Mary. Barry (Aaron Eckhart) is Mary’s painfully insecure husband. And Cary Gasón Patrie), a physician, abuses women with predatory glee. As for the women, Mary (Amy Brenneman) is flattered by the offer of adultery. And Jerry’s bitchy girlfriend (Catherine Keener), who can’t stand his habit of talking during sex, tumbles into a lesbian affair with an art-gallery employee (Nastassja Kinski).

Shot entirely indoors—steam baths, bookstores, drug marts—LaBute’s narrative lacks the usual connective tissue. And often its truth-or-dare situations seem inauthentic, especially Cary’s shocking confessions. But what is darkly satisfying about the film is that it consists entirely of dialogue, of relationships being eviscerated. Recalling the cruelty of Carnal Knowledge and the formalism of The Decline of the American Empire, LaBute’s dry minuet has an insidious charm. With friends and neighbors like these, who needs enemies?