by Jack Sommersby
With a neat script and a tantalizing Kari Wuhrer, this makes for unexpectedly must-see viewing.Unlike most of Zalman King's soft-core sex flicks (the Red Shoe Diaries series; Wild Orchid) Vivid (re-titled Luscious for home video) is solid filmmaking, with an interesting story and three-dimensional characters. I know, I know, how can this be? Well, I was taken quite by surprise in my going into this expecting nothing more than one of those sub-par direct-to-video disposables that employ the flimsiest of stories as the merest justification for parading an array of beautiful naked bodies in front of us. I've not the slightest problem with this, mind you, because our expectations are usually met -- we don't seek these things out for their intelligent screenplays. But Vivid caught me completely off-guard, offered up something wonderfully different, and held me from start to finish.
"A Classic Sex Comedy Guaranteed to Melt Your Bon-Bons!"
At first, I thought the debuting writer/director, Evan Georgiades, had erred early on by showcasing his female star, Kari Wuhrer, in full-frontal buff mode not five minutes in. Excuse me!? The nakedness is what we look forward to, with the sexy build-ups to the disrobings part of the turn-on; lustful anticipation plays its own important part in this particular sub-genre. Predictably, the audience is likely to be temporarily stimulated but subsequently let down as well -- with this spectacular body already revealed, what else is there to look forward to, for Pete's Sake? This is where Vivid has the upper hand.
We're first introduced to Cole (played by Stephen Shellen), one of those struggling artists who's been experiencing blockage as of late, failing to make much headway in his free-form painting. As many can relate to: he's in his work studio, brush in hand, staring at a pure white canvas, and just waiting for the inspiration to make that first stroke. It doesn't happen, and, as usual, he convinces his live-in lover, Billie (Wuhrer), herself a professional model, to pose nude for him, hoping she'll act as some sort of catalyst. Nothing happens -- and nothing has been happening in their bedroom as of late, either! (If you'e willing to accept that any mortal man would not be having sex with an ultimate babe like Wuhrer on an everyday basis, than you're already halfway home here.)
The next day, something occurs. Grudgingly, Billie concedes to put her body on display again for Cole's benefit. Again, nothing. This time, however, Cole, in a fit of anger and total frustration, throws an open can of blue paint directly onto Billie. Initially, Cole is ashamed, and Billie, predictably, is outraged. Then they start to playfully claw at one another, and we start thinking that the artist angle was just to get these two beautiful bodies covered in paint. (Tsk, tsk -- you know what the saying is about assuming, don't you?)
Though it may come across as totally hokey, and on a certain level I guess that it is, Cole is temporarily no longer "blocked". He starts smearing other colors all over Billie, who, in turn, is becoming increasingly turned on and follows suit; without sex for so long, she's more than willing to play along and see where this is going. This is the first of the sex scenes. When they're finished, again, we think predictability is just over the horizon. Not so. Cole, a talented and award-winning painter, wasn't exactly making love to make love -- he was making love to paint, for the canvas underneath their wet, wriggling bodies is now a finished work (reminiscent in the style of the late Jackson Pollock's). This painting and others that follow start generating a buzz in the art community, and Cole's agent, Susan (Ilene Kristen), wants more of them, and Billie, now sexually sated, is more than willing to oblige in her lover's unorthodox painting method. For a while, anyway.
Vivid amazes in a lot of areas. One of them is in having Cole and Billie stay loyal to one another. Instead of going the easy-to-please route by having them temporarily separate and taking on different sex partners to lend physical variety to the proceedings, Evan Georgiades displays courage and confidence in centering on his two main characters and keeping the focus on them throughout. These two do get into their fair share of arguments, though, which is perfectly understandable on Billie's behalf because, as it plays out, she can't get laid without being covered in goop ("Are we ever gonna make love without making a painting out of it?" and "We used to go out; we used to do things -- now all we do is sit around and paint."). It also doesn't help that Cole's agent is oblivious to the personal toll it's taking on her client's relationship ("I don't know what's going wrong with your personal life, but absolutely nothing is going wrong with your paintings.").
And talk about originality! There's an absolutely marvelous scene which finds Billie arriving home early from an overnight flight, coming through the door, and finding Susan butt-naked, covered with paint, lying on a canvass. In the scene before this, Susan was breathing lustfully onto Cole, so we (rightfully) presume that he's gone the Idiot Route by bagging his agent. Not so. For the real zinger is masterfully dropped in our laps: Cole enters the room, fully clothed(!), and hands Susan a cucumber to masturbate with (which, she comments, is way too cold for the task at hand). Not only is the conception and execution of this inspired, but it manages to reveal a goofy and endearing quality about Cole -- as Billie stands there, frozen-limbed and outraged, he hasn't the slightest idea that he's done something even remotely wrong.
Georgiades has penned some of the frankest sexual dialogue to be heard in quite some time, yet none of it's gross or filthy or profane -- it's the kind of talk we'd expect between two consenting adults. At the breakfast table, for instance, Cole and Billie each take a turn with a syrup bottle in using the drippy and sticky spout to simulate orgasm while making fun of the other's passionate noises when they come. Later on, when Susan tells Cole his paintings are starting to lose their vibrancy, he and Billie thumb through a Joy of Sex-type book, looking for an inspired position:
"The only thing we haven't tried is anal sex", she says.
(Cole looks hopefully at her)
"Oh, no", she states.
(He retains the hopeful look; she starts to relent.)
"It won't even fit, will it?", she says.
(The next shot is of a tube of KY Jelly, and Billie from the shoulders up lying on her stomach while Cole is doing the lubricating, which leads to the film's funniest line:)
"Do not use it sparingly, Cole."
As is usually the case with an actress I'm enamored of, Kari Wuhrer is underrated. True, she possesses a knockout of a body; truer still, she's appealing, more than two-dimensional, and seems incapable of making a false move on the screen. A minor supporting player in major films (Anaconda; Eight-Legged Freaks) and a substantial one in minor ones (Phoenix; Beastmaster 2), Wuhrer, I'm afraid, is presumed to be more beauty (not to mention, bust) than brains. Yet she has a substantial screen presence here, suggesting an actual and active internal life. Whether it's cynically griping about her modeling job or getting onto Cole about his abstinence or, after getting some good news, bouncing and dancing around the living room, Wuhrer has that necessary lifeforce too few Hollywood actresses truly possess, which, through discipline and tact, translates into conviction. (In other words, she's the acting opposite of a Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan.)
And while Stephen Shellen (best remembered as the avenging brother in the classic The Stepfather) doesn't have much depth, he's good-natured, tries his damndest to stay in character, and isn't afraid of looking like a doofus (like when Cole absent-mindedly plays with his hair while Susan raves over his new paintings). For a while, we think Cole is going to turn out to be one of those insufferable arty types consumed by selfishness, a son of a bitch to anyone foolish enough to love them, so, naturally, we think Billie's going to be driven away and into the arms of another man. Luckily, Georgiades' screenplay is canny in avoiding cliche. A softer, gentler, more caring side to Cole is later revealed, with none of it coming off as maudlin because we've been afforded the proper time and luxury to get to know him. When his emotional layers start to peel away, the effect is rather touching -- you feel he's a good soul mate for Billie, and she to him. Shellen, with his adorable hound-dog eyes and Aidan Quinn profile, underplays quite pleasingly.
Director Georgiades doesn't seem to possess a whole lot in the way of a breakthrough talent, yet considering the limited scope and setting of the film, his (mostly) unobtrusive camerabatics compliments his screenplay well. With only three characters, and all the action taking place in the lovers' studio apartment, Georgiades, with the invaluable help of cinematographer Ludek Bogner, is able to keep the film visually alive with a supple tactility to the images that's applicable not only to the paintings (which, to my eyes, weren't all that inspired) but to every square inch of inhabitable space on display. There's a bit too much slo-mo applied to the sex scenes -- it calls our attention to the film as such -- so, like the paintings, they're sometimes too artfully rendered for their own good, but the second-rate yet bouncy soundtrack helps alleviate this occasional stuffiness.
Finally, everything comes together in a great final scene: Cole, after finally having started to paint on his own, crawls into the sack with an exhausted Billie, instigates sex, and Billie, worn down by a couple of his seductive kisses, can't help but excitingly exclaim, "We're in bed!".
Vivid is terrific entertainment.
The DVD transfer is far from breathtaking. In fact, it's pretty much a textbook example of "average". The picture is full-frame, not letterboxed, but since the original aspect ratio was 1.85.1, not a lot of picture information is lost with its being cropped to fit a standard television's 1.33:1 ratio. With all the colorful paintings on display, bleeding isn't really a problem; however, a steady stream of video noise permeates almost every frame (even in the sun-drenched day time scenes!). The audio fares somewhat better, if only due to its straight-laced mediocrity, which, compared to the picture, seems like a stellar quality. Chapter stops are limited, with a teaser trailer (with nudity, no less!) included.Nobody does it like Kari Wuhrer!
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=6526&reviewer=327
originally posted: 12/18/02 02:07:29