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‘sex, lies and videotape’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 11, 1989

THEY WERE the jury, the Cannes Jury. They called movies "films" (not counting Sally Field) they were European (not counting Sally Field), they knew what they were talking about ( . . . ). They gave the big prize to American director Steven Soderbergh for his "sex, lies, and videotape."

"sex, lies," the Most Important Film in the Most Important Film Festival in the World, hits D.C. this weekend, brimming with blessing -- La Palme D'Or and Le Best Actor James Spader.

Cannes goods frequently are damaged in transit by the hype machine, and "sex, lies," an arty "small film," doesn't exactly hold up under this scrutiny. But, awards or not, writer/director/editor Soderbergh has composed a wry, highly watchable piece that comes across as a great first effort by a film-school graduate.

The movie is welcome relief for what it doesn't do. It doesn't bear firearms, bend fenders or bare grinning teeth (see Dennis Quaid's movies and try not to think of flossing). With its deadpan, noncommercial quality (not to mention shoestring budget), "sex, lies" has an alternative feel; the performers, all of them unhistrionic, seem caught in an absorbing documentary rather than in a power-acting drama.

Andie MacDowell is a frustrated, sexually squeamish wife married to lawyer-philanderer Peter Gallagher, who's more than just an in-law to MacDowell's sensual sister Laura San Giacomo. Spader is a tortured wanderer, strapped down with impotence and a video camera, who breezes into town.

They're all types, sure. But Soderbergh gives them choice lines and the cast (particularly the two women, with Spader an accomplished third) helps erase any familiar outlines.

The writer in Soderbergh proves the ultimate weak link. In "sex, lies' " last third, he seems seized with a compulsion to make sense of it all, bring everything to bear, give everyone their moral comeuppance, their screenplay payoff. We discover What Really Happened to Spader, for instance: It has a lot to do with the title. We find out why MacDowell's so uptight and how she gets her revenge. We see someone's change of conscience and, yep, it has a lot to do with the title.

In fact, everything's got a lot to do with the title. Suddenly, a leisurely paced, freewheeling meditation on four interesting people is crowded with motivations and reasons and connect-the-dots morality. And Hollywood already does that so, uh, well.

SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (R) -- Area theaters.

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