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Go to Sleep ... It's Just Talk

[whitespace] Relax ... It's Just Sex
Tara-ble: Jennifer Tilly's dialogue is the worst aspect of 'Relax ... It's Just Sex,' and she's in two-thirds of the movie.

P.J. Castellaneta's characters don't know when to shut up

By Richard von Busack

The makers of Relax ... It's Just Sex ought to be sued for false advertising. The real title of the film should be Try to Stay Awake ... It's Just Talk. Director/writer P.J. Castellaneta's film features a dozen characters of various sexual persuasions. Castellaneta (whose last film was Together Alone) must have decided that if the characters all looked different, they could all talk the same.

So here's a demographic stew of the West L.A. gay/bi community: one hetero couple; one lipstick lesbian with male fling (Serena Scott Thomas); one boyish lesbian with Joan of Arc haircut (Lori "Tank Girl" Petty, with a raspy New Orleans accent); one lipstick lesbian (Cynda Williams of One False Move) torn between the last-named two women; one HIV-positive male, Javi (Eddie Garcia); and one HIV-negative survivor (T.C. Carson) of a lover who died of AIDS, who believes that there is no such thing as AIDS and suspects the drug companies of engineering it all.

Each of the characters has one little chip on his or her shoulder. Mitchell Anderson, who plays the would-be playwright Vincey Sauris, can't find a good, solid live-in boyfriend ("Sleeping around is dangerous, beginning a relationship is impossible, men are scum and I don't want anything to do with it").

Vincey, who has issues about having been queer-bashed when he was in college, retaliates against a second basher by raping the perpetrator in front of his shocked friends. This incident causes a rift in the group. Is this scene unlikely? Yes. Would you let one of your friends rape someone in front of you, no matter what the circumstances? It's an understandable revenge fantasy, but what does it have to do with a schmooze fest like this? The answer must be that Castellaneta wanted some action to keep the movie from looking as static as it unfortunately is.

While Vincey retreats from his extended family of pals, Tara (Jennifer Tilly) tries to keep going as the nucleus of the group. When she isn't cooking, Tara is baying for a baby--"My eggs aren't getting any fresher! I need your sperm." Her boyfriend, Gus (Timothy Paul Perez), is ready to go abroad as a war correspondent; Tara tries to talk him out of it, with dialogue that's like memories of a hundred bad old movies: "You'd rather wander the war capitals of the world than stay with me. I'll tell you one thing you're not going to find out there in Cairo, and that's me."

The dialogue for Tara, erstwhile proud fag hag that she is, is the worst part of Relax ... It's Just Sex, and she's in two-thirds of the movie. Relax ... It's Just Sex (and not much sex, either) is ambitious in ways Castellaneta doesn't realize. Only hard work can match up the various stories, finding a thread to connect them all--a real thread, not just a common dinner table for them to meet at and gripe.

The physical differences among the cast aren't enough to make it seem like they are really different people. They all talk the same--they're a mass happy family, the Friends crew doubled. (The TV show Friends has had a malign influence on the cinema, and the trouble isn't over yet.)

Castellaneta is apparently uninterested in visual storytelling. This sort of film is illustrated radio. The talk is more important than the images, and there are no nuances. The characters spill their guts and don't hold anything back. The story is patched together with that most annoying of new clichés--"video diaries" in which the characters face the camera and come up with those few thoughts they haven't expressed aloud. Intellectually lazy and visually ugly, the "video diary" gambit must die.

Boutique filmmaking like this may find a queer audience happy to see any dim reflection of themselves onscreen. And there are flashes of humor in the dimness; the flashes never last, but they're there. Scott Thomas as the straying half of a lesbian couple may be little more than a British-accented villainess. Still, her argument as she breaks up with her girlfriend has some bite to it. Pointing to the bed they shared, she snaps, "It's a lesbian bed death--this is a lesbian death bed!"

The film's introduction, a parody of '50s educational films, is funny, and a warm cameo by Paul Winfield is welcome, even if it comes out of nowhere. Ultimately, Relax ... It's Just Sex has a moralizing streak. The film reclaims families, monogamy, prayer and childbirth for homosexuals as well as for straights. Aren't families, monogamy, prayer and childbirth what we go to the movies to get away from?.

Relax ... It's Just Sex (Unrated, 108 min.), directed and written by P.J. Castellaneta and starring Jennifer Tilly, Lori Petty and Eddie Garcia, plays through March 18 at the Castro Theater.

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From the March 15, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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