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'sex, lies, and videotape' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 11, 1989

"Sex, lies, and videotape" is inspired chitchat, a barefaced Louisiana gabfest written and directed by Steven Soderbergh, a 26-year-old Wunderkind preoccupied with l'amour. But this French farce is a Cajun-country comedy, skillet-fried and sly and splashed with Tabasco.

Though the title promises thighs, whispers and dirty pictures, the movie is almost as modest as its $1.2 million budget. It is a philosophical look at the hidden agendas that undermine relationships, a meditation, says Soderbergh, on his own wrecked courtships. Like Rob Reiner in "When Harry Met Sally . . . ", he expands on the neurotic truths told by Woody Allen, a Yankee kindred, in "Annie Hall." It's the subtext of lust that Soderbergh seeks to understand.

James Spader spearheads the superlative four-person cast, playing Graham, an impotent southerner whose return to Baton Rouge irrevocably alters the lives of an old fraternity brother, John (Peter Gallagher), John's repressed wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), and her wanton sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Potentially a tired, no-holds-barred bedroom romp, the movie is instead as welcome as fresh sheets, telling and terribly personal. It has the chummy ambiance of a surreal slumber party.

Spader's protagonist comes armed with a video camera -- his only working equipment: Graham gratifies himself by videotaping women as they talk about their sex lives. After a series of painful fandangos, he's decided he'd rather look than touch. "I used to be a pathological liar. ... I used to express my feelings nonverbally, and I used to scare people I love," he confesses. He's since become so tender a listener that women are drawn to him like kittens to cream, and his video library is chock full of confessional peep shows.

Graham hints that his past behavior was as reprehensible as that of his current nemesis, John, a dimpled bayou tomcat who is sleeping with his wife's sexier younger sister. Still, Soderbergh seems to believe that both men suffer from the same disease, that Graham is only Casanova in a chastity belt.

The heroines are each other's antitheses and the men's mirror images, likewise unfulfilled but reflected through bathroom steam and only dimly understood. Cynthia, a punky bartender in cowgirl boots, is a nuts-and-bolts hedonist who is getting even with her prettier, more popular sister -- not exactly a profound motivation, but serviceable. "The idea of doing it in my sister's bed just gives me a perverse thrill," she says to John, who meets her under the maple headboard wearing nothing but a philodendron. "Is that for me?" she asks.

Ann, a repressed cheerleader who became a repressed wife, pretends to love John, married life and inhaling Lemon Pledge. "What do you like about your marriage?" Graham asks her. The stability, the house and John's promotion, Ann stammers as awareness dawns. She is immediately attracted to Graham, but John, a haberdashing partner in a fancy law firm, finds his old pal tiresome. John is yuppie as icon, a new-age robber baron who believes in the capitalistic ethic: As long as you can get away with it, it's okay.

It's not so much the plot as the performances that propel this witty lovers' almanac. Spader was named Best Actor at Cannes (the movie was likewise laureled), where he stole the festival with his California mellow. He is hypnotizing, like some extremely low-key snake charmer. San Giacomo, as Cynthia, is a walking spice rack -- sinuous, challenging, foxy. Tough as jerky on the outside, she actually learns to like her sun-dress-wearing sister after Graham gives her a little attention.

The exquisite MacDowell ("Greystoke's" Jane) plays Ann with a Diane Keatonish flourish, an orgy of ellipses. Perhaps she is Soderbergh's metaphor for 20th-century America, overwhelmed by things she can't control. In this tale of peeping Toms, ineptitude and isolation, she is our reference point.

What "The Big Chill" was to baby boomers, the inspirational "sex, lies, and videotape" is to the mall crowd. It's designer soul-searching, a looking glass for a generation.

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