Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Relax... It's Just Sex

By Sarah Hepola

JUNE 28, 1999: 

D: P.J. Castellaneta; with Jennifer Tilly, Mitchell Anderson, T.C. Carson, Chris Cleveland, Lori Petty, Cynda Williams, Serena Scott Thomas, Billy Wirth, Timothy Paul Perez, Seymour Cassel. (R, 108 min.)

Just sex, you say? Gee, what could be more relaxing than that? Director P.J. Castellaneta knows the torrent of neuroses, complications, and conundrums that delicate (or perhaps, rough) subject unleashes in all of us. And while the film's revelations about doing the wild thing in the Nineties (i.e., it's confusing) may not be earth-shattering, to see the subject treated with such humanity and humor is a gratifying, even touching, experience. From its hysterical opening sequence, the film dabbles in sex farce, including hilarious rants on such dilemmas as whether to spit or swallow, but Castellaneta proves he knows not only the moans and groans of the bedroom, but also the hushed intimacies and betrayals, the wide-eyed nights brimming with uncertainty, the comfort -- or suffocation -- of a lover's arm resting on your side. Vincey Sauris (Anderson) is your typical writer: that is, unemployed and alone. His dalliances with men are confusing at best and at worst, humiliating. He spills these misadventures to Tara (Tilly), his close friend and a mother hen to a bevy of lost souls who congregate regularly at her dinner parties. But Tara has problems of her own, not the least of which is a boyfriend (Perez) far less enthusiastic about starting a family than she. In fact, conflict seems the only constant in the lives of Vincey's friends, like the implosion of the nine-year relationship between lesbians Sarina (Williams) and Megan (Scott Thomas, sister of Kristin) following Megan's fling with a man. All these crises are trumped by Javi's (Garcia) announcement that he is HIV-positive. Instead of focusing narrowly on Javi's impending illness, however, Castellaneta uses his situation as just another example of love blossoming under the most painful (and unlikely) circumstances. But Castellaneta isn't content with creating just another chatty comedy about romance, and It's Just Sex gets dark -- quick. Gay-bashing, pregnancy, switching sexual streams -- it's all a bit too much for one film, and the story sags underneath the weight, but this ensemble, led by Party of Five's Anderson, continually sucks us in with their quick wit and vulnerability (although Lori Petty, as Sarina's butch gal pal, still tries too hard for my taste). The real surprise here is Tilly, whose usual bubblehead comic business can be so damned annoying. Instead, the actress has drawn a believable character, full of folly but also as cuddly and sweet as she is a vicious gossip. The concern and the investment each of these characters make in each other is palpable, and the film is also a poignant depiction of the ways modern singles can find the support of a family network in an age of broken homes and estranged children. Perhaps the film is most praiseworthy in its defiance of conventional cinematic solutions. Risky and inventive, Relax ... It's Just Sex sometimes stumbles in its attempt to be all things to all people. But just like that all-important act it centers around, just when you think you've figured it all out, they go and change the rules.

3.0 stars

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