Sex, Lies, and Videotape
* * *
Director & Writer: Steven Soderbergh
Producers: John Hardy & Robert Newmyer
Starring: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, and Laura San Giacomo
Let’s Talk about Sex, Lies, and Videotape
James Spader has always unnerved me. His lips don’t appear to move much when he talks; he was the disagreeable, cooler-than-thou rich kid in “Pretty in Pink”; and his eyes project a sinister message even when the character he plays is supposed to be a nice and relatively “normal” guy. The closest he has ever come to not creeping me out was in “Stargate” as the dorky, bumbling Dr. Daniel Jackson. I suppose I included “videotape” as a voting option for Week 7 of Film Phonics so that I would have a reason to watch “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” For approximately five years, every time I went to Blockbuster I saw the 1989 Steven Soderbergh film sitting in the drama section but was never motivated enough to rent it. This time around, I had to watch it. I’m still not sure if it was worth the wait.
Narratively interlaced yet uncomplicated, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” explores the issues of fidelity and honesty in sexual and “platonic” relationships. Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher) are married. John is having an affair with Ann’s younger, very sexual sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). When John’s college friend Graham (James Spader) comes to visit after nine years of little to no contact, secrets, lies, and other forms of withheld information begin to see the light of day. And of course, the characters’ lives are profoundly altered as a result of Graham’s presence.
“Sex, Lies, and Videotape” contains moments of spoken or exuded comedy that are effective enough for Richard Corliss of Time Magazine to have regarded it as “the season’s smartest and funniest film,” and for Vincent Canby of The New York Times to have hailed it as “exceptionally accomplished and witty.” Given the sexual themes and discussions that take place, though, I wonder how controversial the film was—if at all—when it was released. “The Last Seduction” (John Dahl, 1994) and “Basic Instinct” (Paul Verhoeven, 1992), which were both about sex and strong-willed, manipulative women, weren’t released until after “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.”
Soderbergh’s film strikes me as somewhat risky on account of the way Graham encapsulates the meaning of the title. He videotapes women talking about their sex lives and then masturbates to the footage—something that Cynthia either directly learns or perceptively observes after she agrees to being filmed. Kinsey recorded people doing more than just talking about their sexual habits, but his life story wasn’t made into a biopic until 2004. An IMDB as well as a LexisNexis search of reviews indicates that the subject matter in “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” was less of a big deal than the fact that it was—quoting Peter Travers*—“written in eight days and shot over five weeks on a meager $1.2 million budget by a twenty-six-year-old first-time feature director with a no-star cast and zilch special effects.”
“Sex, Lies, and Videotape” is a significant film in that it likely gave hope to many no-name filmmakers. One can write and direct a film with non-megastar actors, and then receive critical praise…get nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar too. Subjectively, however, I don’t know how to react to it. It didn’t disturb, wow, or irritate me. James Spader didn’t bother me either. I do know, however, that Peter Gallagher and Andie MacDowell do not noticeably age. No wonder he’s on the “OC” and she’s done those age-defying L’Oreal commercials.
Every week, Stina Chyn puts her viewing habits in your hands. Readers vote on five random words posted at Back Talk every Tuesday. The winning word dictates what she will have to watch and review the following week as that word must appear in the title of the movie. Choose wisely!