There are some things we’d rather do for ourselves. Others are more interesting if someone else lends a hand. So it is with the customers of the Toronto full body massage in the very funny low-key comedy “Rub and Tug”.
Although the job isn’t precisely prostitution, it operates on the legal margins. Hand jobs with “full release” are more or less acceptable to the local constabulary, but actual sex is frowned upon and can make the difference between a profitable operation and complete bankruptcy.
So the new manager, the youngish, diffident Conrad (Don McKellar), is told by his affably paranoid new boss, Lawrence (Richard Zeppieri). Lawrence warns him that the bitches who work there are desperately greedy and, if left unsupervised, will quickly graduate to the dreaded full service in search of bigger bucks. Along with his other duties, Lawrence wants him to act as a spy furtively inspecting purses for condoms, using a reversed peephole to check up on the girls relations with clients, and generally acting like a creep. Conrad, expressing a degree of moral outrage, doesn’t want to. Besides, he really wants to be liked by the three masseuses.
Understandable. The young women are not only beautiful, they’re charming and sweet — most of the time, anyway. Lea (Lindy Booth) is good-natured and easy going, if mildly insecure — which might account for why she’s actively deceiving her boyfriend about her job — and maybe even why she’s obsessed with squeezing the guy’s long-suffering nipples. Betty (Tara Spencer-Nairn) is tougher and more ambitious, saving her money, and using the investment advice of a client to try and grow her money, perhaps to open her own store. And finally, there’s Cindy (Kira Clavell), an Asian immigrant whose surface sweetness masks a driving need for money and respect.
After a rocky first day, Conrad and the girls seem to be on their way toward a united front. In fact, all three women say they’re vehemently against any one of them crossing the line into actual sex with their clients. They’re making plenty of money without the danger and humiliation of full-on prostitution, why mess around? The four seem to be well on their way to real friendship.
However, things start to get more complicated. Cindy has a serious problem with her immigration status: The solution: a fake marriage to just about any male, and the lucky guy gets a cool $25,000 Canadian for his trouble. Conrad qualifies as any male, but there are some problems regarding how he’s supposed to be paid for his faux-conjugal duties. And then there’s that mysterious condom wrapper…and what about the gum somebody keeps placing over the peepholes? And just how far will Betty go to scrape together enough cash to start her own wack-shack?
A low-key comedy with a jaundiced heart, “Rub and Tug” is remarkable for a mostly very clever script and uniformly strong performances, particularly from deadpan Canadian indie veteran Don McKellar (“Exotica”), who delivers most of the films biggest laughs, and Kira Clavell. Ms. Clavell takes what could have been an offensively hoary stereotype, the Asian hand-hooker with a heart of gold and instead delivers a fully realized character. Cindy may be willing to sacrifice some of her happiness to become a heroine to her family back home, but she’s also too smart to ever become truly tragic. Lindy Booth and Tara Spencer-Nairn are similarly good at transcending the obvious and creating believable characters who can be sweetly compassionate one moment, believably petty the next.
“Rub and Tug” is no technical tour de force and a few threads are left hanging awkwardly at the end, but first time feature director Soo Lyu, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Edward Stanulis, doesn’t jerk the audience around. She pays due respect to the characters and their world, milking surprisingly good-natured, sexy comedy from a milieu most would write off as unpleasant and a bit sticky.
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