Opposite of Sex, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The turning point in Christina Ricci's career came when she chose to appear in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm. Since then, nothing has been the same for the up-and-coming performer. Before the 1997 feature, Ricci had turned up in host of bland, family-oriented features as an innocent young girl. Although the films were often easy to dismiss, the actress' consistently fine performances were not. Finally, with The Ice Storm, Ricci was given a role of import in a film of substance. Her portrayal of a sexually voracious teenager who sleeps with boys of her age (and younger) is riveting, and it ignited a phase in Ricci's career that has had her playing a drug-addled artist (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), an alluring hostage-turned-girlfriend (Buffalo 66), and a promiscuous young woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon (The Opposite of Sex).

Ricci's performance is only one reason why Don Roos' The Opposite of Sex is a success. This is perhaps the most audacious film of the year to date (at least among mainstream releases), filling the slot left vacant by 1997's In the Company of Men. The Opposite of Sex is the kind of daring feature that doesn't open every Friday at the local multiplex; its frank, sometimes politically incorrect approach towards the act and politics of sex is refreshing. And, in addition to dealing with intrinsically provocative material, first-time director Roos uses the unique approach of satirizing the conventions of road pictures and dysfunctional family dramas to tell his story. In particular, he has a lot of fun with the voice-over. The glib narrator, Deedee Truitt (Ricci), is aware that she's speaking to a movie audience, and, as a result, can't resist the opportunity to have some fun at the viewer's expense. In her opening monologue, she informs us that "things get very complicated very quick, and you're going to have trouble getting through it without me talking," then, in case we mistake her for a cute-but-misunderstood 16-year old, she warns us that "I don't have a heart of gold and I don't grow one later." When a gun makes a brief appearance, she tells us not to forget about it. ("Duh. It's foreshadowing.") At another time, she "shows" scenes of things that don't really happen, then laughs at our gullibility for believing them.

Although Deedee is the narrator and, consequently, has the largest speaking part, she's not the film's central character. That role belongs to her half-brother, Bill (Martin Donovan), "the definition of a softy." Bill, a gay high school teacher, has been leading a peaceful existence until his pregnant sister runs away from home and comes to him for shelter. Unablet to refuse anyone anything, he lets Deedee stay, and she repays his kindness by seducing his live-in lover, Matt (Ivan Sergei), who, after his fling with Deedee, decides that he's not really a homosexual - he's a bisexual. Another constant presence in Bill's life is the always-miserable Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), the sister of his dead true love. Then there are Jason (Johnny Galecki), who falsely tells the police that Bill molested him, and Sheriff Carl Tippett (Lyle Lovett), the genial cop who investigates the boy's claims.

As comedies go, The Opposite of Sex is one of 1998's most consistently funny. Of course, humor is subjective, and I'm known for being a little warped in that area, so Roos' flamboyant, out-on-a-limb approach is perfect for someone like me. The dialogue is crisp and distinctive, occasionally invoking the spirit of something written by Kevin Smith. However, it's obvious to Roos (and to us) that this kind of slick, unconventional style can have trouble sustaining a feature-length movie. No matter how outrageous the tone, it grows tiresome after a while, so the writer/director changes gears during the second half. Although The Opposite of Sex never completely loses its satirical, self-mocking edge, the final 50 minutes are more serious than what precedes them, and the humor is leavened by a couple of earnest, surprisingly-effective messages. One particularly intriguing concept is Carl's assertion that maybe sex isn't for recreation or procreation, but for concentration - that when a man and woman sleep together, the experience attunes them to each other. This is in contrast with Deedee's largely-negative view of sex. For her, it's a burden that leads to such undesirable results as "kids, or disease, or relationships."

While Ricci's performance in The Opposite of Sex is the standout, it's not the most surprising example of acting, at least when one considers her previous critical acclaim. Instead, that distinction goes to Lisa Kudrow, who abandons the ditzy image she has refined on television and in movies in favor of a well-rounded portrayal of a bitter, lonely woman. Lucia proves that Kudrow has a rarely-displayed range. So, with Ricci and Kudrow leading the way, the women in The Opposite of Sex are far more interesting than the men. Martin Donovan underplays Bill as smart, affable, and bland. Ivan Sergei plays Matt as dumb, affable, and bland. And Lyle Lovett portrays Carl as strange, affable, and bland.

The tag line for The Opposite of Sex is: "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be offended." While that's perhaps overstating the movie's impact, it's not completely off-base. The film manages to mix a portion of successful drama into its primarily-comic foundation, and conservative movie-goers will likely be turned off by the no-punches pulled, occasionally raunchy look at sex. However, with its memorable dialogue, solid performances, and idiosyncratic style, The Opposite of Sex is sure to be appreciated by those who aren't frightened away by the cinematic equivalent of hot chili.

Opposite of Sex, The (United States, 1998)

Director: Don Roos
Cast: +Christina Ricci, Martin Donovan, Lisa Kudrow, Lyle Lovett, Ivan Sergei, Johnny Galecki
Screenplay: Don Roos
Cinematography: Hubert Taczanowski
Music: Mason Daring
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Ranked #8 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1998
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1