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Metro Pulse It's Not Just Sex

A Brief Treatise on Selling a Movie.

By Adrienne Martini

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  First, have a catchy title, one that grabs every eyeball in every head that happens by the marquee, flips through a magazine, or surfs by a website. Keep it short, like Elizabeth or Drugstore Cowboy—it doesn't take much to scan these titles and you get an instant idea of what will be contained on the reels within. Punchy and tawdry are even better—think Scandal or Octopussy. You may not know exactly what either of these will be about, but it is sure to be exciting. Above all else, avoid ellipses. Citizen Kane would never have succeed if the title was Kane....More Than a Tycoon. It's just too much information, no matter how accurate the title may be or how wonderful the film itself is.

Granted, having "sex" usually helps, which is about the only manner in which the title for writer/director P.J. Castellaneta's Relax...It's Just Sex succeeds. This dull and somewhat silly name makes it sound more like a goofy Brit-com or an early, undiscovered, and thoroughly bad Woody Allen pic rather than the wonderful, funny, bright movie that it is.

Second, find a catchy label that you can use to sound-bite the theme. Titanic could be described as a "tragic romance." Armageddon is "the Bruce Willis comet extravaganza." Unfortunately, the marketers of Relax have decided to dub it "a gay comedy," which isn't inaccurate so much as it is amazingly limiting. Yup, there are gay people in it. Yup, it's funny. And, yup, calling it a gay comedy keeps out anyone who is simply appalled by the very idea of two people of the same sex actually forming a relationship—but it will also keep out those who don't realize that Relax is more about self-discovery and love than it is about the gender that a person chooses to have sex with. If the title didn't confuse a potential audience member, the tag line certainly will—and will also highly disappoint someone expecting a "gay comedy" along the lines of The Birdcage.

It's this faulty marketing that is perhaps the worst thing about Relax since it means almost no one will see it. The title is completely forgettable and the tag line is completely inaccurate. The only thing the movie has going for it—other than the content of the film itself—is a handful of critics across the country praising it whenever they can. And in this day and age when every film faces stiff competition from big budgets and actor-driven spectaculars, a quiet, smart picture like Relax is going to get lost in the shuffle, which is a fate better served by the disappearance of End of Days or The Bachelor.

Admittedly, it's also hard to push Relax since the plot cannot be easily summed up. Essentially, Castellaneta weaves 10 different characters into a coherent storyline. Jennifer Tilly (not nearly as annoying as she usually is—and, in fact, charming and lovely) is the linchpin of the group, a straight woman whose biological clock sounds like Big Ben. She's best friends with Vincey (beautifully played by Party Of Five's Mitchell Anderson), a writer who can't seem to find Mr. Right. Floating about them are Lori Petty, Cynda Williams, and Serena Scott Thomas (yes, she's Kristen's sister), as well as a pair of deeply Christian gym queens, a black artist, and a gay guy with (gasp!) really bad fashion sense. The story, after the preliminary introductions are exposed, proceeds from there, with brief stops at a gay-bashing, a hospital, and several dinner parties.

But forget all of that. While all of the characters in the plot are important and well-acted, it's the words that Castellaneta gives them to say that makes this more than yet another rambling ensemble comedy like 200 Cigarettes. You start to believe in these characters, as if on a quiet day you could swing by one of their Hollywood apartments and have some coffee. You want to see them succeed or, at least, get a little bit of what they want. And, visually, Castellaneta sets up some marvelous combinations of shots that speak louder than any of his realistically poetic lines. With two people and a camera, Castellaneta can essentially disprove the silly title; clearly, it's not "just sex" otherwise the film itself would feel more like porn and less like the quiet contemplation of love that it actually is.

Which isn't to say that this is a perfect movie. Some of the dialogue falls just a little bit too in love with itself and becomes draggy in spots. Technically, the teeny-tiny budget shows with some bad looping and unintentionally funky shots. Relax is also in search of a good opening—while the beginning '50s-esque black-and-white sequence about homosexual sex is really, really funny, it's just too flip to fit the film that follows. Still, Relax deserves just as much of a chance (or more) to make it to a wide audience as the latest heavily, splashily marketed big-budget, major-studio spectacular. Unfortunately, it probably won't get it.


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