Better Than Sex

Reviewed By Andrew Howe
Posted 04/18/01 21:59:08

"Nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Recipe for success: take one of Australia's rising male actors, fresh from a memorable turn on a popular television serial; team him with an independent director and a script which promises a frank, down-to-earth exploration of modern-day sexual mores; sit back and wait for the inevitable critical acclaim.

All of which proves that while you can't fool all of the people all of the time, you can certainly hoodwink enough of them if you possess the required self-confidence. Tell people that they're watching something "fresh" and "daring", back it up with a healthy dose of that ol' independent-filmmaker swagger, and you're a shoo-in for a five-picture deal with the studio of your choice.

Unfortunately, first-time director Jonathan Teplitzky's Better than Sex is a tedious exercise in style-over-substance, and its success at the opening of the 2000 Sydney Film Festival proved, once again, that festival crowds that will label anything a masterpiece if it features a bit of gratuitous nooky. I can appreciate what Teplitzky was trying to achieve, but banal dialogue, charmless characters and annoying pseudo-documentary interludes reveal it for what it is: a mildly-diverting short that outstays its welcome.

Here's the drill: Susie Porter plays Cin (symbolic gesture # 1 - try putting "of the flesh" after her name), a thoroughly-modern, independent Australian lass (we are alerted to her status as a child of the Pepsi generation by the fact that she wears her hair short and refers to lovemaking as "a fuck"). David Wenham plays Josh, a thoroughly-modern, independent Australian lad (we are alerted to his status as a new-age yob by the fact that he's a London-based wildlife photographer who, despite dashes of sensitivity, still thinks with his groin). After meeting at a party, they retire to Cin's pad for a night of horizontal folk-dancing, performed in full view of a wedding dress that Cin is making for a friend (symbolic gesture #2 - the ties of marriage vs no-strings carnal delights).

Unfortunately for our dynamic duo, Josh has a flight back to Blighty in three days, so they spend this time convincing themselves that, despite the non-stop humping, there's no way they're going to fall in love. This is played out via a string of meandering, pointless conversations, the best of which are no more insightful than anything you'll hear from your friends on a Friday night down the local, and the worst of which are downright embarrassing.

Look, it's like this: we all know that the throes of ecstasy are responsible for some of the most ludicrous statements ever to issue from the lips of otherwise-intelligent men and women. Thankfully, these ejaculations tend to remain trapped in the heat of the moment: God forbid that we should be reminded of such things once the passion has subsided.

Better Than Sex turns the spotlight on the subject, but it would have been better for all concerned if our heroes' pillow talk had remained behind closed doors. When Cyn breathlessly intones "I love you" while on her hands and knees (and no, she's not scrubbing the floor at the time), nobody doubts that such "special" moments are part and parcel of recreational sex. However, since we're not participating in the act it's merely embarrassing, the equivalent of listening to a couple of strangers through a paper-thin motel wall. Teplitzky evidently assumed we'd be smiling knowingly, but instead we're left to reach for the bucket.

This kind of thing continues for the duration - three-night stands aren't known for their pithy insights and sparkling conversation, and so we are treated to a conversation about the number of sexual partners our bed-hopping protagonists have pleasured; a treatise on the joys of oral servicing; a group of women recreating their preferred orgasmic expressions (which might have been amusing if Meg Ryan hadn't already written the book on the subject); and, God help us, Teplitzky's two-cents on the great swallowing debate (and this is without even considering the time spent exploring such well-worn topics as leaving the toilet seat down and the way in which females are seemingly incapable of getting ready to hit the town in under two hours). Lest I make it all sound a little intriguing, I should point out that none of this is exactly ground-breaking - it exists solely to make the script appear (all together now) "fresh" and "daring", when in reality it's about as daring as reading the Forum section of Australian Penthouse in the buff.

This is not, however, the death-knell for the film: that's sounded by the thinly-drawn, unappealing protagonists, since the film's dialogue has even less chance of succeeding without involving characters to back it up.

I can't speak for everyone, but being stuck in an apartment with these boring, self-centred individuals would drive me to thoughts of justifiable homicide. Wenham ensures Josh is not entirely bereft of charm, but for the most part he's reduced to walking around the room in his underwear while humming a few bars of Should I Stay or Should I Go. Porter, on the other hand, is lumbered with a character whose personality is well-defined - Cin is a self-absorbed, annoying prat, the kind of in-your-face inner-city denizen we've all known and hated at one time or another. You could argue that her hard exterior masks an inner yearning for love and affection, but the absence of pathos and poignancy ensures she is never given the chance to enlist the viewer's support.

The film does take the occasional stab at something a little deeper, but Teplitzky's noble intentions are derailed by his affinity for attention-grabbing, unsubtle speeches. For example, Josh carries a photograph of an old girlfriend to remind him of past mistakes and the healing powers of the passage of time. Unfortunately, this is communicated via a tepid exchange which features little in the way of realistic emotion, and moreover he doesn't act like a man who has gained wisdom through suffering at any other time (contrast with the symbolic wristwatch worn by DeNiro's character in Midnight Run - its meaning unfolded gradually thorough several touching, believable scenes, and a number of his beliefs and actions could be laid squarely at the door of his divorce).

Teplitzky sees fit to adopt the "documentary" style of filmmaking, in that Cin and Josh spend an inordinate amount of time gabbing to an unseen narrator, as do several of their friends. I can't think of a single film in which this technique is anything other than an attention-grabbing annoyance: it's a cheap way of communicating the characters' thoughts, absolving the scriptwriter from the requirement to pen scenes in which this information becomes apparent through actions and conversations, and it disrupts the flow with monotonous regularity. The film also features an omniscient taxi driver who continuously steers the lovers into each other's arms (her grating smugness makes you wish she'd steer herself off a cliff), which dispatches any remaining notion that we're supposed to take Teplitzky's creation seriously.

Needless to say, the film winds its way to a predictable conclusion which is at odds with the events that preceded it. It appears that we are meant to credit the notion that these two miscreants manage to find true love (which is, apparently, better than sex) as a result of three days of war stories and bedroom action. There is, however, no evidence to support this assertion, since they never connect on anything but the most basic of levels, and any chemistry between the leads is conspicuous by its absence. On the other hand, I suppose it's possible that Teplitzky was making the point that, as Harlan Ellison once said, "Love ain't nothing but sex misspelled", but if so there's little insightful comment on that angle either. Whatever the intention, it's a tedious conclusion to a tedious film, and will see all but the sappiest romantics from the cinema in a state of righteous disgust.

Better Than Sex is like drinking a diet soda - there's a hint of the taste you know and love, but it promises considerably more than it delivers. It's bland, tiresome and flat, going nowhere of interest for its (blessedly short) 95 minute duration, and features, for all its non-stop verbal intercourse, exactly one memorable line.

That line is "I like it cold", and is, alas, symbolic gesture #3: unless you're in a forgiving frame of mind, it's exactly how the film is going to leave you.

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