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'Rita, Sue and Bob, Too' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 22, 1987

"Rita, Sue and Bob Too" may be the least sexy sex farce I've ever seen. The movie, which is set in the economically depressed north of England, features two frisky teen-agers who earn a little extra money baby-sitting for Bob (George Costigan) and his wife Michelle (Lesley Sharp). These girls aren't worldbeaters, in either the brains or the beauty department -- physically, they have a sort of boiled dumpling quality -- but they're rather amiable, knockabout types. If they were guys you might think of them as blokes.

Driving the girls home at the end of the evening, Bob suggests that rather than go straight home they take a spin up to the moors, and Rita (Siobhan Finneran), who's a little more gregarious than Sue (Michelle Holmes), hasn't a second's hestitation. She pauses just slightly longer when Bob suggests that she try out the front seat, which, he points outproudly, is a recliner. Within minutes, he's had them both, consecutively, and the affair is off and running.

By this point, though, which is only 15 minutes into the film, we're well out of it. An essential aspect of any film, and this sort in particular, is that the characters intrigue us, that we're interested enough in them to follow their stories. And even dull characters can be compelling. But though the director, Alan Clarke, who grew up a working-class lad himself, has a talent for getting relaxed, unfussy work from his actors, his people never grow beyond what we see in them at first glance. The details of behavior are there onscreen, but the essence -- what might give that behavior meaning -- is missing.

In addition, he and his screenwriter, Andrea Dunbar (who still lives in the area where the story is set), seem to have too cramped a conception of their characters' lives for us to be drawn in. The story seems to grow more out of the filmmakers' assumptions than the characters' lives. Though he's given them spunk, Clarke seems to insist that Rita and Sue are losers. In scene after scene, they come across as clumsy or dimwitted.

Also, Clarke doesn't quite register the scummy side of having this older guy come on to a pair of women still in high school. Bob's not coercive in any way, and the girls seem savvy enough at least to know what the purpose of his little detour is. Clarke sees Bob as a regular guy, and their interest in hanging out with him as perfectly natural; it beats walking around any time. But if you've listened to your women friends tell stories about the sweaty-palmed experiences they've had getting a lift home from somebody's dad, this set of circumstances may not strike you as quite so innocent.

The real problem, though, is that the characters' limitations appear to be more imposed on them than organic; their spirits don't seem to be their own. It's entirely possible to believe that the girls are sexually ignorant. (Though there seem to be a number of neighborhood boys hanging around, their classmates are all girls). But why, given the circumstances, should they have such hardened, unromantic attitudes toward sex? What Clarke seems to want us to believe is that these working-class girls are too cowlike to have sentimental feelings; hard times have thickened their skins.

Not that Rita and Sue don't enjoy themselves. They're randy, these lasses; once they've nibbled at carnal pleasures they practically run Bob ragged trying to satisfy them, and if by chance his endurance isn't all it should be, they're mercilessly unsympathetic. But sex for them is more a function of biology than pleasure or emotion. While Bob is servicing one, the other impatiently waits her turn, as if on line at the loo.

The movie's sense of humor is brash and shaggy, and Rita does have a couple of fliply delivered comebacks. But on the whole, there's not enough variety or definition to hold your attention. Too much is all on the same pitch. In some of the scenes between Rita and the Pakistani boy (Kulvinder Ghir) she takes up with after Bob throws her over for Sue, you get something of the dour, straight-faced mood of England under Thatcher. This may explain why Clarke chose to handle the erotic material so joylessly. But that doesn't appear to be quite all of it. The way Clarke shoots the sex scenes, they appear antierotic. And what you think watching them is that, like Bob's wife, he just doesn't seem to like sex much.

"Rita, Sue and Bob Too" contains suggestive material.

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