Heavy Petting

Jenniphr Goodman couldn’t sleep the night before introducing her directorial debut, The Tao of Steve, to the 1,300 audience members at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “I’d practiced all day,” she says, “and all I had to say were three lines: ‘We’re so thrilled to be here. Thank you for coming. We hope you enjoy it.’ ” As she stepped out in front of the crowd, her two younger sisters, Greer and Dana, both of whom co-star in Tao, cowered in the back row, chewing their nails. “As I looked at the audience, I managed to get out one word, We’re, before bursting into tears.” The crowd responded with a collective, sympathetic “Ohhh!” that only made her sob more.

There was no reason to be nervous – the audience ended up loving the unusual sex comedy, and three days after the first screening, Sony Picture Classics snapped up domestic distribution rights. The film, a dead-on depiction of male bachelorhood, manages to avoid all the usual clichés. For one thing, Dex, the leading man played by Donal Logue (best known as the Alanis Morissette-singing taxi driver in those ubiquitous MTV plugs), is seriously overweight – we’re talking a beer belly of epic proportions – yet somehow women can’t keep out of his size 44 jeans.

Today, just two weeks before the film’s theatrical release, Jenniphr Goodman is in the kitchen of her sister Greer’s SoHo loft. She’s got her eye on an array of Carr’s crackers, cheese wheels, and what looks like the entire line of Pepperidge Farm cookies. “I thought you might want a snack,” Greer says, pushing the crackers toward me. She watches me eat one, then scoops up her preposterously fat tabby, Redford, and blurts out, “So you’re not going to write down everything I say verbatim, right? You’re just going to extract nuggets, right?”

“No, he’s going to publish everything we say, word-for-word,” Jenniphr says, taking a cookie. “It’s going to be a fascinating 30-page read.”

Of the three sisters (Dana, 26, is also there, listening intently while sipping a Sam Adams), you wouldn’t peg Jenniphr as the director. Greer, 34, was always known as “the academic one.” Dressed in a conservative green turtleneck and khakis, she’s well-spoken, although more than a bit tightly wound. (“Sure, you can smoke over there – but please, please be careful not to fall out the window.”) Jenniphr, 38 (“the rebellious one”), seems more like the actor in the family: jangly bracelets, big floppy T-shirt, tattoos, eccentrically spelled name. She’s nervous, too, though, and starts belching uncontrollably. (“I’ve done it my whole life,” she burps. “The doctors say there’s nothing they can do …”)

In the $1.2 million film – shot in Santa Fe, where Jenniphr lives with her husband – Greer plays Syd, the one woman who’s immune to the hero’s charms (he consequently falls in love with her), and Dana has a smaller role as a philosophy undergrad who’s effortlessly seduced by the flabby Don Juan. Jenniphr, aside from directing the film, collaborated with Greer on the screenplay, along with their close friend Duncan North, who happens to be a real-life overweight charmer with a history of bedding more women than anybody they’ve ever known. They made the film out of “frustration with being unemployed and not doing anything with our lives, despite having two graduate degrees between us.” (Greer went to Yale School of Drama and Jenniphr went to NYU film school.)

On one level, the film provides a foolproof method for seducing women. Dex’s approach is cobbled together from bits of Lao-tzu, Heidegger, and Steve McQueen. He calls it “the Tao of Steve,” and Greer coolly lays out the three basic tenets for me: “Number one, be desireless, as in, don’t come on too strong and don’t seem sexually interested. Two, be excellent – somehow leave an impression that you’re charming and great, like McQueen or Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man. And three, be gone – after you wow your would-be date, depart so that they start pursuing you.

“Duncan’s theories about women completely work,” says Jenniphr. “We were just at a film festival in Nantucket. He was juggling about five or six girls.”

“All on the first day,” says Dana.

“And these women had seen the movie,” Jenniphr adds. “They knew it was all about him, and they still went for it.”

“It works because he’s so respectful,” says Dana. “He’s very funny, he’s very smart, and he’s a good listener. Period.”

“He’s more or less trained himself to be all these things,” Greer says. “It’s almost manipulative – almost. It’s like Newton: He didn’t discover gravity; he just wrote the laws. There are laws about how men and women interact, and figuring out how they work – is that manipulative? We could argue for years about it. But my stance is, because Duncan is overweight, he’s had to develop a more sophisticated way to get women – it’s like blind people developing an acute sense of hearing.”

“Well, of course, Greer knows firsthand about being seduced by Duncan,” Jenniphr burps. “Greer, shouldn’t we illuminate – ?”

Greer freezes, genuinely angry. “Well,” she says, “I dated Duncan for about two weeks – “

“I just thought the spark you had between the two of you was germane,” Jenniphr prods. “For a while, there was this ongoing sexual tension between the two of them, until finally – “

“Redford!” Greer shouts, stopping the conversation – and the interview – dead. The cat is on the counter, deep into the Cheddar. “He always does this; I’ll go wash the cheese …”

(I reach Duncan at his home in Santa Fe. He admits that he and Greer broke up because they were “two way-too-strong personalities,” but nothing more. As a consolation prize, he offers his take on the Goodmans as a whole: “They’re characters out of a Jane Austen novel – only they don’t have that nineteenth-century smell. They’re three women from Womanland, an alternate universe where none of that regular girl stuff works on them.”)

Greer returns with more trays of food and another six-pack of Sam Adams. “Sorry about that,” she mutters. “Can I offer you some more cheese?”

Heavy Petting