SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE is a very divisive movie among copy editors who argue bitterly about its use of the Oxford comma in the title. The rest of us agree it’s a solid debut for writer-director Steve Soderbergh.
It’s a story with basically four characters. We’ve got Ann (GROUNDHOG DAY‘s Andie MacDowell), a somewhat troubled stay-at-home wife who opens the movie talking to her therapist (okay, I didn’t count him in the four) about her worries, about her husband not touching her, and about her belief that sex is overrated, not that big a deal.
Then we’ve got her husband John (STEP UP REVOLUTION‘s Peter Gallagher), a pure ’80s character because he’s a lawyer who wears suspenders and “just made junior partner” and he’s real proud of himself and a total douche.
And we’ve got Ann’s younger sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who is much wilder than Ann and sort of rebels against her and also is fucking John.
Lastly we have Graham (CRASH‘s James Spader), an old friend of John’s who he hasn’t seen in nine years but he’s back in town and John is letting him stay at the house briefly while he tries to find an apartment. Graham is the individualistic non-conformist cowboy drifter loner artistic beatnik rebel who sweeps through their square lives and changes everything forever. And he does it merely by being a pervert who can’t get a hard-on and owns a Hi-8 camera.
Surprisingly he doesn’t ride into town on a motorcycle. He owns a car filled with a few meager belongings, and that’s it. At dinner with John and Ann he seems like a nice enough guy, but you can understand their trepidation when he philosophizes about how great his life is with only one key and if he gets an apartment he has to have two keys and he doesn’t want to make that compromise. Uh, buddy, maybe at least pretend to not be moving in permanently.
But actually he finds an apartment the very next day and is in fact a nice guy, which I guess was against type for Spader, who was only a few years out of being the asshole in teen movies. He’s sporting a Swayze-esque mullet, almost as much hair as head. It’s obvious that they’ve grown apart, they can’t really relate to each other like they used to, but when John talks about him being different he fixates on him wearing a black shirt, comparing him to an undertaker and stuff. The way he talks about him you’d think he came in wearing a full Marilyn Manson getup, but it’s just a nice button up, long sleeve shirt that he wears with blue jeans, he could never even pass for mildly goth-y. I don’t remember a time when a shirt like that was shocking or intimidating. It might be a little bit of the times this was made in, or a regional thing (it was filmed in Louisiana), but I think it’s mostly a reflection of what an uptight dipshit John is.
There’s a very simple story here, but to me it always stays interesting because the characters are so well defined. You want Ann to find a way to be happier and you want her husband to trip over his shoelaces and fall into a tiger pit. The whole cast gives topnotch performances, but I was most impressed by MacDowell. I generally find her likable, but I’ve never seen her as good as in this (only her third movie after GREYSTOKE and ST. ELMO’S FIRE). She’s a character who says so much about herself without actually saying it. When she’s talking to her therapist and she claims things are going pretty good it seems like she really does believe that, but we can tell that there’s more to it. Or when she comes back and talks about Graham having visited, her words are saying it’s nothing big but her voice is saying that she is smitten with this dude who is so different from her husband. Also, as much as she talks about not being interested in sex, the way she handles objects while talking to Graham about it seems to indicate otherwise.
Sometimes I suspect that the characters know things and just aren’t saying them. When Ann is visiting her sister she happens to pick up a small potted plant that we know John took out of his office to give to Cynthia as a gift. She kind of stares off into space and fondles it. You wonder if maybe she remembers this plant being in his office, and is getting ideas. But then she continues picking up other objects on the mantle, it seems to be an obsessive compulsive thing. Still, we can see the pieces of information coming together in her mind before she figures it out.
Cynthia should probly be hatable, she’s being such a despicable sister, but she’s funny. When she hears about Graham she wants to meet him, but he’s already moved out, so then she just shows up at his new apartment and introduces herself. It’s like she can sense that going after him would be punishment both for John and for Ann, so she can’t help but do it.
So here’s the thing about Graham. He admits that he hasn’t had sex in years because he can’t get an erection in the presence of another person. But he has somehow convinced various women to let him interview them about their sex lives and record it. And he sits around naked watching these videos, that’s how he gets off. So it’s pretty clear where this is going: sexually repressed Annie is gonna learn to let loose and also it’s gonna turn into How James Spader Got His Boner Back.
Once he records these he keeps them nicely organized in a box with the women’s names hand-written on the spines. And these tapes come to represent true honesty in the form of an object you can hold in your hand. When John finds out Ann has one he is outraged and he storms in and watches it by force. So the liar sits there and listens to the truth. One part of the truth is that his wife doesn’t know if she’s had an orgasm before. Wow, way to put in work, junior partner. Jesus.
I think it seemed kinda edgy at the time that “sex” was in the title, and it kinda surprised people that it isn’t particularly graphic. It’s more intimate. It does have some sex scenes, but as the character of Graham will attest it’s the closeups of women talking that are more sexually charged.
I like that her actual therapist (Ron Vawter) is so creepy looking that it makes it believable she’d be more open with Spader, even though she doesn’t know him very well. But also she turns the tables on him and makes it into an interview of him. I didn’t completely follow his backstory but it’s funny that the old him was a pathological liar and ruined everything. That was the guy that John was friends with and he doesn’t like him anymore now that he’s changed and wears a black shirt.
In the end John does not get run over by a bus or stung to death by a swarm of killer bees, but there is a very satisfying finale for him. 25 YEAR OLD INDIE DRAMA SPOILER. While he’s in his office talking to a friend about work being more important to him than marriage anyway the important client who he’s been rescheduling for the entire movie gives up and leaves. John talks a big game about work being important but the motherfucker never does any work.
The only thing that’s not slick about this is that when they’re talking on the phone the voice on the other side is not distorted, and it’s kinda weird. Otherwise there’s nothing that feels low-budget-first-timer-shooting-in-Baton-Rouge about it. Although it’s the more genre oriented Soderbergh movies like OUT OF SIGHT, HAYWIRE, THE LIMEY and OCEAN’S ELEVEN that are my favorites, this is definitely a precursor to his smaller movies that are often kind of improvisational and explorational, setting up some characters and relationships and seeing where they go. It also shows how great he is with actors, getting a career best performance out of MacDowell just like he would with Jennifer Lopez in OUT OF SIGHT, among others. And just like how he taught George Clooney to stop nodding his head when he talks.
Soderbergh also was the editor of the film, and it shows. In the opening scene he gives us the audio of Ann talking to her therapist while contrasting her words with other revealing scenes such as her husband cheating on her. At the climax, when Ann goes to be recorded by Graham, Soderbergh skips ahead, only to show what she said when John starts watching the video, at which point it slides back to her filming it. Clever.
This is definitely a good one. But it’s easy to imagine a writer/director becoming a critical darling with a debut like this, then making a couple more that they don’t love as much and after a while quitting or just directing TV for hire. Clearly Soderbergh did much better than that. He was just getting started.
* Steven Brill, who has a really funny part as a dude who hangs out at the Bayou bar where Cynthia works, went on to write THE MIGHTY DUCKS and direct HEAVY WEIGHTS, LITTLE NICKY, WALK OF SHAME, etc.
* At the Cannes Film Festival this won the Palm d’Or, an award also won by BLACK ORPHEUS, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, BLOWUP, TAXI DRIVER, APOCALYPSE NOW, WILD AT HEART, BARTON FINK, PULP FICTION, RUSH HOUR 2 and THE TREE OF LIFE. Actually I might be mistaken about RUSH HOUR 2, I will have to research that. But the rest of them did win it, and that’s good company to be in.
* the same composer, cinematographer and casting director later worked on PUMP UP THE VOLUME, but it did not win the Palm d’Or
* this is the first score for Cliff Martinez, other than an episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He would go on to score many films for Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, among others. Did you know he’s also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a former drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and played with Captain Beefheart, Lydia Lunch and The Dickies? No lie.
The box office success of SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE is credited with raising the profile of independent cinema, kicking off the ’90s indie boom and the rise of Miramax. Obviously it introduced the world to Soderbergh, one of the best directors of the ’90s and 2000s. But in my opinion its true legacy is in creating a titling convention. This includes many TV movies, mini-series and documentaries (
SPIES, LIES & NAKED THIGHS / PAWS, CLAWS & VIDEOTAPE / WIKILEAKS: WAR, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE / SEX, FOOTBALLERS AND VIDEOTAPE / CATHOUSE: SEX, GUYS AND VIDEOTAPE / VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP & VIDEOTAPE) but even more than that it has inspired decades worth of TV episode titles.
A selected titleography:
“Sex, Lies and Politics,” Ally McBeal, 1999
“Sex, Lies and Second Thoughts,” Ally McBeal, 2000
“Sharks, Lies and Videotape,” Baywatch, 1998
“Sex, Lies and Volleyball,” Beverly Hills, 90210, 1992
“Sex, Lies and Teenagers,” Blossom, 1991
“Sex, Lies and Mrs. Peterson,” Blossom, 1994
“Suspects, Lies & Videotape,” Bobby’s World, 1991
“Sex, Lies and Bad Hair Days,” Designing Women, 1993
“Dex, Lies, and Videotape,” Dexter, 2007
“Success, Lies and Videotape,” A Different World, 1990
“T-rex, Lies and Videotape,” Eek! the Cat, 1992
“Food, Lies and Videotape,” Family Matters, 1992
“Sex, Lies and Tortillas,” The Golden Palace, 1993
“Wrecks, Lies & Videotape,” Goof Troop, 1992
“Sex, Lies and Expedia.com,” Judging Amy, 1999
“Pets, Guys and Videotape,” Life Goes On, 1989
“Sex, Lies and Commercials,” Ned and Stacey, 1995
“Sex, Lies and Ed’s Tapes,” Northern Exposure, 1990
“Tess, Lies and Video Tape,” Roswell, 2000, also One Life to Live, 2008
“Hex, Lies, and No Video Tape,” Sabrina the Teenage Witch, 2001
“Zack, Lies & Videotape,” Saved by the Bell: The College Years, 1993
“Sex, Pies and Idiot Scrapes,” The Simpsons, 2008
“Sex, Lies and Video Date,” Spin City, 2002
“Spook, Lies and Videotape,” The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper, 1996
“Shakes, Fries & Videotape,” Sweet Valley High, 1996
“Prom, Lies and Videotape,” Valerie, 1990
“Sex, Lies and Exercise Tape,” Who’s the Boss?, 1989
“Weapon X, Lies & Videotape,” X-Men, 1992