Speaking from the story perspective, “Love & Sex” doesn’t cover much of anything that hadn’t already been addressed in other romantic comedies. But at the center of writer-director Valerie Breiman’s Sundance crowdpleaser are the special qualities that would make the most familiar scenario completely fresh: a breakthrough performance by star Famke Janssen; and sparkling chemistry with her leading man, Jon Favreau.
Janssen, most widely known for the empowered female types she’s played in films such as “X-Men” and especially “GoldenEye,” is a revelation as Kate Wells, magazine writer and perpetual screw-up in the ways of romance. In a role that for once neither relies on her imposing physicality nor stunning beauty, Janssen reveals a beguiling vulnerability and wonderful comic flair as Kate revisits her romantic and sexual misadventures while attempting to write an article about finding the perfect man–a subject that could not be more foreign to her. Nearly every one of Kate’s stabs at romance has ended in disaster, from her first crush in elementary school to a fling with a married man, with an ill-advised dalliance with her high school French teacher taking place somewhere in between.
But there was one man who could have very well been “it”–Adam Levy (Favreau), an artist with whom Kate has had her most rewarding and least dysfunctional relationship. Favreau, recently stripped of his innate likability as a one-dimensional tough guy in “The Replacements,” reminds why his big splash, “Swingers,” remains an indie fave nearly five years after its initial release. Sporting an unruly haircut with scruffy sideburns and often wearing paint-stained casual wear, his Adam certainly doesn’t look like a typical movie leading man–but Favreau’s portrayal nails down harder-to-achieve allure: low-key confidence and a down-to-earth, playful sense of humor.
That latter area is where Kate and Adam, Janssen and Favreau, and Breiman and the audience really connect. There is a sense of fun when these two are together, and not the artificially sunny type of movie happiness; just as doing a typically awkward striptease in front of a camcorder is good for a laugh, so are more grounded moments like pointing out each other’s physical flaws; nonchalantly doing what would normally be embarrassing in the comfort of bed; and coming up with knowingly dumb yet intimately special terms like “I cheese sandwich you.”
But as the film reveals from the beginning, this relationship turns sour as well, and here Breiman also runs into some trouble. Numerous situations come out of the school of sitcom contrivance, such as Kate and Adam trying to make each other jealous by fawning over others; and an all-too-coincidental bump-in between Kate, Adam, and his new girlfriend at a movie theatre.
Those are just the most familiar moments in “Love & Sex,” which indeed takes a few more steps on a well-worn cinematic path. However, the success of films like these is largely dependent on the stars, and with Favreau and especially Janssen–who should find a host of even more varied acting opportunities open to her after this–striking real sparks, “Love & Sex” is an engaging and satisfying love story that deserves to break out of the arthouse pack.