Appetites of Desire
Ihate the word “charming.” It makes me think of Great Aunt Gladys, who always arrived with sloppy kisses and marshmallow fruit salad, no matter what the occasion. “Charming” conjures up images of crocheted doilies and duck stencils, some Martha Stewart domestic nightmare.
But despite my personal aversion to the word, I can think of no better way to describe Valerie Breiman’s Love & Sex than “charming.” In addition, it stars the thinking girl’s bombshell Famke Janssen and the dopey-and-therefore-lovable Jon Favreau. A romantic comedy that actually has a brain, it works against yet firmly within the tradition of every Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan tissue-grabber ever featured on Entertainment Tonight. In some ways, it’s a typical “date” movie: heavy on the sap and one-liners without ever solidifying a story line that’s believable. But the very premise of the film a woman remembering her lovers sets itself up to make some smart observations on the state of female sexuality and masculine bravado. It’s in striking the balance between the insightful sexual politics and the tender if predictable love story that Love & Sex does its best work.
Love & Sex is narrated by journalist Kate Welles (Janssen), who quite miserably works for Monique, a women’s magazine named after its publisher and founder (former downtown performance artist Anne Magnuson). There she writes articles on love, sex, and, in at least one instance, a “blow by blow” beginner’s guide to fellatio techniques. Kate eventually claims that the blow job article is the only one she’s written for Monique that was actually pulled from her own life experiences. This revelation makes the article’s conclusion all the more relevant for the viewer: despite the emotional healing power contained in the properly-performed blow job, it is only the suckee who benefits from its wisdom and serenity; “the sucker always stays depressed.”
The blow job analogy run through most of Love & Sex, as the viewer watches Kate navigate sexual and sometimes romantic relationships with her high school French teacher to whom she loses her virginity, an already-married man (Noah Emmerich) who she meets in a car crash, a basketball player (Robert Knepper) obsessed with her ass, and an actor (Josh Hopkins) obsessed with Robert De Niro. She says that she “uses sex as a way to erase the past,” but it is just that past that haunts her and prevents her from really allowing her current relationships to mean more than just a series of sexual acts punctuated by one or two obligatory tears when they end. Though she claims to want to find meaning in her life, she surrounds herself with men who cannot possibly supply anything more than the temporary satisfaction sex brings her.
Kate experiments with and enjoys sex liberally, a fact that shocks her on-again, off-again boyfriend Adam (Favreau). Her thirteen former lovers stand in stark contrast to his naive two, an embarrassment that he returns to repeatedly throughout the film and that she assumes is at the root of many of their domestic problems. In truth, it’s somewhat refreshing to watch a male character exhibit an immature sexual insecurity in the face of a more experienced female lover, and even more refreshing if not downright liberating to watch that female character refuse to apologize for her sexual appetites. The problem is that Kate’s sexual appetites aren’t always appetites of desire. More often than not, they are grounded in a fear of being alone. She engages in much of her sexual activity as a means of making relationships stick: as the old adage goes, men use love to get sex while women use sex to get love. So Kate’s sexual promiscuity, as it were, isn’t exactly what Adam thinks it is. As Kate traces her memories of past lovers, searching for inspiration for yet another story on sexual relationships for Monique, she tries to come to a deeper understanding of her sexual proclivities. Meg Ryan wouldn’t dare.
Yet, in some ways, Love & Sex is really an updated When Harry Met Sally, reversing the gender of the promiscuity, but never really allowing sex to be much more than a comic device or a point of contention. Kate, like Sally, is smart, sarcastic, and quick to dash off witty one-liners. And Adam, as Harry, is the dopey but completely lovable and well-intentioned buffoon whose paintings which Kate calls immature feature images of a woman pulling a head out of her ass. It’s sometimes adorable, but like When Harry Met Sally, it’s also completely predictable. When the lovers break up to date other people, the obligatory “make the one you really love jealous” antics begin, culminating with Kate dry-fucking the basketball player on a bar, and Adam dating a woman (Kristen Zang) who is a good ten years younger than Kate and appears to have the IQ of a tree stump. Nothing too shocking here, although to Janssen and Favreau’s credit, they pull it off with a flair that makes it close to believable.
And when, at the end, the lovers decide to give it another go, it’s a sweet relief, but a bit on the unconvincing side. It’s never really clear whether Adam or Kate have really figured out what sex means to her (or to him), and one has to wonder if the couple is doomed to repeat the cycle of jealousy and discontent. Still, it’s worth giving them the benefit of the doubt; I mean, how many couples would ever really say “cheese sandwich” in place of “I love you”? There’s something about the utter sappiness of a romance like this one that sucks in the viewer and forces that suspension of disbelief. Love & Sex is not re-inventing the wheel, but it’s sweet and funny and well-acted. Janssen has shown what she’s capable of here, and Favreau doing his best Paul Reiser impression is completely convincing and more than a little bit endearing. So what if it’s not going to blow the curve at next year’s Oscars? It’s still downright charming.