At first glance, this appears to be just another entry in the glut of ensemble cast dramedies which flooded the market following the sleeper hit “Brothers McMullen” a few years back. Yet upon closer examination, P.J. Castellaneta’s “Relax…It’s Just Sex” offers two distinctive characteristics: One, it features a cast with at least two marginally recognizable names (Jennifer Tilly and Lori Petty) and two, virtually all the characters are gay or lesbian.
I suppose this was inevitable. Necessary and appropriate, even. After all, homosexuals have every bit as much of a right to bitch and moan about their lousy love lives, philosophize about the meanings of life and death, and just generally spew their existential angst for about an hour and a half as straight folks. The more important question would be, is “Relax…It’s Just Sex” any good?
Not at first. But it gets better as it goes along.
Desperate to have a baby, Tara (Tilly) is the whiny resident den mother to her alternative lifestyle brood. While she and her boyfriend Gus (Timothy Paul Perez) form the token straight couple, in a nice reversal on network television’s de facto gay character quota system, it’s her best friend, lonely aspiring playwright Vincey (Mitchell Anderson) who alternates with her as a sort of Greek chorus throughout the film. Vincey has the hots for Buzz (T.C. Anderson), a groovy African-American artist with some conspiracy theory leanings on HIV, but instead Buzz falls for Gus’ brother Javier (Billy Wirth), who’s been newly diagnosed as HIV-Positive. Hangin’ in there? Good. There’s also Sarina (Cynda Williams), who falls for the rather butch Robin (Petty) after learning that her pretty longtime girlfriend Megan (Serena Scott Thomas) has cheated on her…with a man. Rounding out this eclectic bunch of friends are a gay Christian couple so unobtrusive you can hardly remember their names and so squeaky clean that the only thing they ever fight about is what to fix for breakfast.
That it takes longer to list this film’s characters than to describe its plot shouldn’t come as any surprise since, well, the interactions between these people ARE the plot. The downside of this approach is that the beginning of the film is painfully slow. Since the viewer doesn’t yet know any of these people, there’s no reason to give a damn. Eventually, however, you warm up to these folks as you get to know them and the film gets better as that happens.
As you might expect, issues that are predominant within the gay community receive a thorough airing out here; HIV/AIDS and hate crimes being at the head of the list. The latter, incidentally, leads to one of the film’s more harrowing sequences; an exceedingly intense gay bashing scene which has repercussions throughout the rest of the film.
Homophobes, of course, will have all sorts of issues with this film (making the brief, tongue-in-cheek “instructional” film at the beginning all the more amusing). As for everyone else, other than lots of frank talk about gay relationships — nothing that hasn’t already been discussed on “Ellen” — this could be any other character-driven talkie. Which leads to the all-too-obvious summary: relax…it’s just a movie.