Unofficially hyped as a reunion between the writer of Heathers (1989), Daniel Waters, and that film's star, Winona Ryder, Sex and Death 101 is a dark sex comedy that tries to recapture the provocative genre from the seventies, although it's doubtful most of the American entries managed to be as profane and frank as Waters seems to believe.
Unlike the French and the far more voluminous Italian films (school teacher/student comedies excepted), American sex comedies rarely equaled the sophisticated and provocative European entries, but there have been a few recent exceptions: on the one side, there's the mix of wit, nudity, adventurous sex and strong characters in the seriously underrated Seeing Other People (2004); and on the other side, there's the raunch, grossness and physical humour in the highly profitable trio of 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Wedding Crashers (2005), and Knocked Up (2005).
That high-profile trio may have helped Waters' 101 script get the green light for production, but it's far too tough a film to sell to audiences used to one-line synopses, like a 40-year old finally getting laid; two goofballs sneaking into a wedding party and hooking up with a pair of beautiful babes and a seriously mental family; or two lovers who eventually confront the issue of a developing baby after a night of hot, drunken sex.
101 kind of has the same problems as Knocked Up, Virgin, and Crashers: it's too long, and on its own, suffers from a prolonged first act before the seeds of redemption are peppered into the midsection. A fantastical, fairy tale element involving three sort-of angels trying to fix a super-computer blunder somewhat recalls Danny Boyle's own genre upgrade, the wretched A Life Less Ordinary (1997), but unlike Boyle's mix of reverence and grating cutesiness, Waters takes genre conventions and lards them with satire and absurdism – and those alone, coming from Heathers' brainchild, are worth giving 101 a peek.
There's also a heavy film geek quotient at work: character names are blatant references to other films (like hussy/stag party dancer "Carlotta Valdes"), and as he admits on the DVD's commentary track, Godard figures a lot in 101's stylistic leaps, mainly in writing a film with scenes that buckle conventions. Waters also assumes viewers and sex comedy fans aren't all that dumb, and can share in his pokes at genre idiocies.
Waters says he tried to integrate as many perversions as possible into 101, and there's some truly outrageous sequences, including a busload of stranded Catholic girls wanting a sleazy deflowering, and in what's arguably the film's highlight, Roderick boffing two lesbians named Bambi and Thumper (get the James Bond connection?) in skimpy nympth costumes using a swing-set in their hotel room.
The casting is perfect: photogenic Simon Baker renders Roderick Blank into a sympathetic, greedy bastard; Mindy Cohn (yes, Natalie Green from TV's evil Facts of Life) plays a good variation of a wise-cracking, Thelma Ritter-styled, supportive secretary for Roderick; and Robert Wisdom (TV's The Wire) is appropriately deadpan as angel Alpha, who manages damage control with assistants Beta and a loud recruit named Fred (Patton Oswalt, who offers some choice improvising and very broad visual gags).
101 kind of enters the terrain of crassness (every so often one experiences the guilty delight reminiscent of The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, which Waters also co-wrote), but Roderick is ultimately a pig searching for redemption ("the End is coming, and Cumming is the end"), and part of his quest includes getting beat up and humiliated a lot, with tumbles, fumbles, books hurled at his cranium, and unexpected deaths happening with the sharp timing and smash edits reminiscent of Waters' Heathers.
Besides the commentary track (one of the best so far this year), the DVD's other extras include a promotional making-of featurette that doesn't duplicate too much of the director's commentary, although none of the deleted scenes referenced in the commentary are on the DVD. The film transfer is very clean, and Rolfe Kent's music once again reinforces the composer as a master of subtle, supportive scoring.
In 101, the mix of satire, genre conventions and rampant absurdism might be better relished by Waters' fans, but it's a welcome return by a screenwriter whose output between 1993'sDemolition Man [M] (the last of his big studio cluster) and 2007 has yielded just two films: Happy Campers (2001), and Sex and Death 101.
That's just too little product from such an inimitable, insane mind.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan