I can now say I’ve seen two movies that feature acting from both Andie McDowell and Peter Gallagher. Is there a third movie out there that will complete the trilogy that Short Cuts and this movie began? An episode of The O.C. will do.
I usually dislike Andie McDowell, but can’t deny that she’s perfectly cast in this film as a prudish and moralistic housewife, a character who dislikes discussing or involving herself in all matters sexual and who admits that when she tried to masturbate, she thought the whole thing seemed silly. Gallagher, also well cast, plays her husband who’s been reacting to her disinterest in sex by cheating on her with her sister (played by a pre-Quigley Down Under Laura San Giacomo). When an old college buddy comes to visit (played by a post-Tuff Turf James Spader), he, aided by his video camera, inspires all of them to see the truths of their lives that they’ve long ignored.
Summing up the plot like that makes it sound cheap and easy, like a movie where mentally challenged people teach the normies around them how to appreciate life by constantly talking about things of which they have no real understanding or eating apples all the time. But with a slight exception for the end when everyone gets what’s coming to them, the movie doesn’t feel cheap or easy and it earns the change in its characters by forcing each one of them to face values they find threatening. Indeed, though he’s the instigating force behind all this self inquiry and, at first, immune to its effects, the movie doesn’t let Spader run away from the effect he’s had on these people’s lives and challenges his own viewpoint.
Just how Spader’s character creates this effect is novel. He’s completely honest with everyone and asks genuine but disarming questions. He declares that liars are the second worst kind of people in the world (the first being lawyers) and, so, many of those around him make a concerted effort to be honest (since no one wants to be among the bad people) which causes them to confront issues in their lives that have been unexamined.
He reveals openly and unashamedly that he’s unable to achieve an erection with another person, a trait that inspires an immediate mutual attraction between his character and McDowell’s, and videotapes women willingly talking about their sex lives for his own autoerotic purposes.
Enough has been said, I assume, about the sexual aspects of this film (these aspects come off as rather sweet and curiously innocent to me). And I’m sure that if you look, you can find a well-reasoned analysis of how the camera functions in the film, allowing the characters to speak their mind and freeing them from the bonds of polite society to talk openly and yet keeping Spader’s character distanced from true intimacy. I’m not convinced I have anything of note to add to either of these discussions. Video sees things with such clarity and honesty, though, and this connection of the honesty of the camera and the honesty of Spader’s character is hard to resist. Blair Witch 2 (yes, I saw that movie) said something along the lines of “Film lies. Video tells the truth,” a thesis Sex, Lies and Videotape agrees with. The immediacy and accessibility of the video camera has the freedom to capture honesty about the people it’s aimed at in a way (low-rez though it may be) that film simply cannot (there are too many chemicals [read: variables] in film for us to be able to trust it completely).
Every time the camera is aimed at someone in this film, it transforms them with its honesty in the same way that Spader’s character inspires everyone in the movie to be more honest. There’s a fantastic moment when the camera is turned on Spader and how the emotional power invested in the camcorder was palpable, due, mainly, to Spader’s reaction to it (as if he was being violated or, perhaps, his soul stolen). It’s interesting that Gallagher’s character is the only major character that doesn’t have the camera turned on him. Instead, he watches a recording of someone else who’s been videotaped, and, as a result, he fortifies his own ideological position, distances himself from those who have been caught by the camera’s unblinking eye.
The movie goes by the book as far as the marriage and infidelity plotting goes, but it never defies the tone it establishes from the outset in doing so. And there’s a weird, confrontational tone throughout the film, helped along by a nice electronic score by Cliff Martinez. Looking back over my thoughts, I think I can conclude that the film itself feels honestly wrought. It’s almost as if a dumb American comedy about marriage, infidelity, and sex was captured on video the same way the characters in this film are and forced to look deep inside itself and tell us what’s really going on underneath it all.