"The Adventures of Sebastian Cole" is pretty much your usual stepdad-gets-a-sex change movie. In fact, given the flamboyance of its story, it's amazing that it turned out so ordinary.
In fact the most extraordinary thing about it is the number of literary allusions in the press kit. This is a document of spin of such magnitude as to make the Clinton White House proud. Some anonymous PR scribe at Paramount Classics may be on his way to the West Wing, with a limo, a secretary and an intern. In three or four short pages, he hits the following trifecta: "The Catcher in the Rye," "The World According to Garp" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Memo to J.D., John and Sam: Relax. Turn the lights down, put some Miles on the CD, have a nice drinkie and the headache will go away.
Sebastian, played by a pair of legs and a haircut with a boy named Adrian Grenier somewhere in between, is first glimpsed staggering across the desert landscape spouting blood. Drug deal gone wrong? Assassin on the run? Witness to the Kennedy job? Well, no: nothing. This is an utterly phony plot manipulation meant to supply a narrative drive of curiosity to a story that otherwise lacks any drive whatsoever; it comes to almost nothing.
Via the shorthand of a flashback, it turns out that Sebastian is the son of a divorced upscale, Upstate New York Anglo-American couple, played by John Shea and Margaret Colin. They're beautiful folks, but not much in the parenting department and when Mom (a drunk) splits back to England she takes Sebastian with her. He hates it there and returns to confront the thing that broke up the marriage--that is her second marriage, not the one to Shea, which presumably ended amiably years earlier.
It's that her second husband Hank, who appears to be some sort of hippie lawyer (the setting for some reason is a poorly realized 1983), has decided to undergo a sex change. Hank (Clark Gregg) is becoming a Henrietta. Letting the kid be raised by a man in this situation makes sense to both original parents, whose own lives are more interesting than their children's.
Thus Sebastian moves in with H/H. The joke is that even though he's a woman, Hank remains a very good man. He's fair, demanding, a disciplinarian, yet also supportive of his stepson. The best parts of the film watch as this odd twosome go out and encounter a somewhat disbelieving world.
But the young director Tod Williams soon loses interest in Henrietta, and the movie returns to the usual youth-pic stuff: girlfriends, drugs, drunkenness, followed thereafter by drunkenness, drugs and girlfriends.
He sees, clearly, Sebastian as a romantic avatar of wild and rebellious youth. But Grenier, who acts with his haircut, never begins to seem remotely interesting. He's about as far from Holden, Garp and Huck as he is from Anna and the King of Siam.
To be sure there's an amusing moment or two in the film--I liked a family dinner scene where Sebastian's flinty old grandma gives him all kinds of difficulty--but there's almost nothing unusual about this film except the theme it ends up running from. And, to top it off, it's really ugly. The photography has the cheesy, bleached-out look of '70s porn. Too bad it's not as entertaining.
The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (99 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated R for sex and rudeness.
CAPTION: Adrian Grenier (with Aleksa Palladino, left) as a wild (but not too wild) child in the unamusing "Adventures of Sebastian Cole."