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Photograph by Jonathan Chick

Baby, It's Coles Inside: Mark Ruffalo plays a wild sexual adventurer who finally settles into domesticity with Petra Wright in 'XX/XY.'

Chick's Flick

In 'XX/XY,' director Austin Chick portrays the bedding games of youth without finger-pointing

By Richard von Busack

THE CUSTOMARY recipe for making an American sex comedy/drama is to take a script and remove the sex, comedy and drama. Austin Chick's small but incisive new movie, XX/XY, proves to be an exception to the rule. A tale of youthful promiscuity, it has guts as well as distance. This sporting life usually forms the basis for finger-pointing social satire (The Rules of Attraction), or else the filmmaker offers it as evidence of catastrophic decadence (remember Body Shots?).

People who sleep around in college often feel that they've achieved a personal revolution, particularly if they end up with more than two in bed. A few nights of wild sex may represent a college student's only really successful rebellion against society. The sexual part (it's rarely that terrific, anyway) is almost immaterial compared to the triumphant feeling of having achieved the pagan life.

It's depressing, after that small breakthrough, to discover that 95 out of a 100 people settle into that old man-and-wife thing--or wife-and-wife thing or man-and-man thing. Surrendering college weightlessness in favor of the gravity of life can cause lasting regret.

Mark Ruffalo plays Coles, an easygoing film student at Sarah Lawrence College. His two girlfriends--self-destructive Thea (Kathleen Robertson) and Sam (Maya Stange)--link up early in the picture. As played by Stange, Sam (short for Samantha) has the thinnest crust of New York on her. She's still unused to being treated brusquely, and her reactions are still dawdling and shy.

Thea is more extreme, the kind who gets too drunk and falls into sticky emotional situations she has no talent for escaping. All three get into bed in record time, thanks to jump cuts and flash-forwards. But the tryst ends in embarrassment; Sam can't handle it. Nevertheless, she and Coles become serious lovers. Ten years pass, and the two women re-enter Coles' life, right at the point when he is considering marriage with Claire (Petra Wright).

Chick contrasts the two halves of Coles' life. His college years seem to take place inside, under the garish green halos of fluorescent dorm room lights, or in the dawn with hangover light seeping through the Venetian blinds. The three hang out in dim, womblike flats, or sneak into an indoor swimming pool after midnight.

Coles' postgraduate life appears tidier but flatter, cleansed of all funk, silhouetted against the open air of cafes and big loft windows. Coles, who once studied film, now makes animated commercials about dancing tacos. And Claire--blonde and bland--looks like an appropriate partner for the new stable life of affluence. Coles is caught unawares when his old feelings for Sam flare up, and Thea is the only one he can confide in about this illicit love.

Opening a film titled XX/XY on the same weekend at X-Men 2 isn't doing it any favors. Moreover, with the way the title puts chromosomes at war, you expect a battle between men and woman, supposedly rooted in the genes. You anticipate yet another film that proclaims that the two sexes are destined from birth, like chickens, to be either nesters or roosters.

But that isn't the story told here. Thea and Sam are as adventurous as Coles. The problem with the characters isn't that they break the rules. The problem is that Coles and his temporary harem have no idea where the rules are, and they injure themselves stumbling over them in the dark.

Chick notes that what he had in mind for Coles was "a young Jack Nicholson." In hiring Ruffalo, he came close. In a film that could have been titled You Can't Count on Me, Ruffalo gives a star's performance. In his 1993-era St. Mark's Place clothes and his Zappa mustache, he's a laid-back guy, genuinely unconscious that he's causing trouble. One drop of insinuation in Ruffalo's performance would have made his character slimy. He draws sympathy because life hasn't worked out for him.

Coles' failed career as a filmmaker is implied (as in the indie picture Judy Berlin) by the reactions of someone who has seen the movie Coles made after he got out of school. This stranger asks Coles for his money back, on the grounds that his girlfriend found the film "morally reprehensible." And we can presume what Coles' film was about. Apparently, as a storyteller, Coles only has one story to tell: the tale of those vivid days in college and his tryst with Sam and Thea.

XX/XY doesn't dread being "morally reprehensible." In the last shot, Chick signals the closing of a relationship with a shot of a closing door. It isn't quite a happy ending signifying "all's well--now this Peter Pan will become a man." This cheerlessness is more cheerful than the usual lies about what a much happier, more worthwhile life a grown-up has, compared to some youth with all his prospects before him and no responsibilities to chain him down.


XX/XY (R; 91 min.), directed and written by Austin Chick, photographed by Uta Briesewitz and starring Mark Ruffalo, Kathleen Robertson, Maya Stange and Petra Wright, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.


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From the May 1-7, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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