A movie without a big publicity machine behind it is now like a soldier without a weapon. Eager to help, critics can fire off their guns, but to what effect? -- they may produce little but noise. So here goes nothing: As our deep-dish media experts rattle their brains trying to elucidate the alleged serious meanings of The Truman Show (good luck, fellows), a small American movie has opened that's far more entertaining than Peter Weir's empty fable. Don Roos's The Opposite of Sex is a work of comic art offering nothing more ambitious than temperament, humor, and sex. It doesn't require much interpretation; it requires only a decent-size audience to appreciate its very tart and original wit, its considerable gift for spontaneous and generous feeling. Don Roos has worked as a screenwriter on commercial movies like Boys on the Side and Single White Female, and he wrote Love Field, an idealistic project about an interracial romance that was perhaps too cautiously conceived to come off. But Roos has now put caution behind him. The Opposite of Sex, an independent film, breathes the air of freedom from its opening moments, in which we are warned by the film's narrator, a 16-year-old bitch named Dedee (Christina Ricci), that "if you think I'm just plucky and scrappy, and all I need is love, you're in over your head."
Dedee may be lounging in baby fat, but she's already a fully functioning femme fatale. Sex and money are the only things that matter to this impatient and ruthless trailer-trash vamp. The comic convention of the movie is that Dedee, taking us into her confidence, is always much worse a person than we expect; she's trying to shock us, like all teens, but at the same time she's truly a bad girl, so bad that she turns every one of our sweet, sympathetic impulses ("Oh, but she's just a kid!") into a pang of regret. Dedee is a great, entertaining caricature, an updated teen version of a forties-noir seductress and murderess -- Lana Turner without corsets. Christina Ricci has a malevolent smile and rather too much smooth white flesh; her being more arrogant than beautiful is part of the joke. Ricci possesses a devastating way with a nasty line; she could curdle mother's milk from 30 paces.
Running away from home, Dedee moves in with Bill (Martin Donovan), her gay half-brother, who is considerably older -- an exceptionally nice, intelligent man but almost pathologically mild (when he finds dirty jokes written about him on his school's bathroom walls, he corrects the grammar). Dedee now has her patsy; she immediately seduces Bill's live-in lover, the handsome, pleasant, but rather stupid young Matt (Ivan Sergei), and soon the two of them, with Bill's money in their pockets, escape from his house in Indiana. They are pursued -- not just by Bill but also by a fellow teacher, a woman named Lucia. Roos takes a risk here: It isn't immediately clear what Lucia is doing in the movie. It turns out she loves Bill devotedly but for a rather indirect reason. Bill's previous lover -- before Matt the bimbo -- was Lucia's brother, who died of AIDS (Dedee refers to him graciously as "the dead guy" and steals his ashes in order to extort money from Bill). When the chase moves to Los Angeles, Lucia tags along, and -- as played by Lisa Kudrow, from Friends -- Lucia turns into a major comic creation.
First Helen Hunt, and now Lisa Kudrow: Television sitcoms, not the movies or the stage, seem to be the breeding ground of great new actresses. Kudrow has a long, Modigliani-esque face and body -- everything about her in this movie seems attenuated, as if her spirit had passed through a mangle. Her voice is very dry, like parchment rattling in the wind. Lucia is dismayed by the American sexual wonderland -- the tramps, the gays and bisexuals, the straight men (represented here by Lyle Lovett) sleeping with other women while their wives are dying. Old-fashioned and loyal, Lucia complains with bitter wit about everybody's sexual arrangements. She's rapidly becoming a classic spinster -- the teacher with the precise observations and the nasty tongue, the one with high standards and a deeply romantic nature that never finds fulfillment in an actual relationship. Kudrow's timing is so good that she can make this pained woman very funny; each of her barbed little remarks is a zinger.
Lucia and Bill are the decent and high-minded ones; they represent "the opposite of sex" -- the opposite of promiscuous Dedee, who has no standards at all. But of course these poles will not remain apart; they become intertwined with one another and form a knot. The movie is a sex comedy, with little patience for fixed positions. Homosexuality and bisexuality (no fuss is made over either) just add to the comic possibilities. Roos moves with great speed and precision -- he assumes that the audience can follow every curve he throws at it. He races from comedy to violent B-movie messiness and then back to comedy again, with frequent pauses for discussion and commentary.
Roos was shrewd enough to see that his bad girl, however funny, has only one dimension, so he leaves us with the real people -- Bill, Lucia, and Matt, who turns out not to be so stupid after all, as well as with the gentle, persistent seducer played by Lyle Lovett, who is pursuing Lucia. For long periods, Dedee gets to hang around only as narrator. But she's such a wise guy, she narrates events that she doesn't even witness. She omnisciently comments on what's going on, comments on the means of filmmaking itself -- telling us, for instance, not to be taken in by some sappy music, which builds false empathy for good old Bill. She's a one-woman Brechtian alienating device -- our adviser, our confidante, our friendly amoralist. Roos plays with everything, and he teases us by making Dedee's cynicism so intimate. After all, she has a certain truth. Some of her outrageous demand on life passes into the virtuous people. They want happiness, too. And happiness doesn't lie in the opposite of sex.