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Reviews

Better Than Sex (2000)

James Oliphant

Jonathan Teplitzky's 'Better Than Sex' is more froth than substance, copulation as cappuccino.


Better Than Sex

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Cast: David Wenham, Susie Porter, Kris McQuade, Simon Bossell, Catherine McClements
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Columbia TriStar
First date: 2000
US DVD Release Date: 2003-07-29
This bed is on fire with passionate love
The neighbors complain about the noises above
But she only comes when she's on top
-- James, "Laid"

Jonathan Teplitzky's Better Than Sex isn't revolutionary filmmaking. It's more froth than substance, copulation as cappuccino. Still, the Australian film has its merits. And it accomplishes a feat surprisingly rare in modern movies. It represents realistically the middle space that exists between the first fiery moment of sexual incandescence and the more modulated environment of the lasting intimate relationship. The Morning After. And more important, the Morning After That.

Most romantic (and, of course, erotic) dramas aren't reluctant to show naked bodies. Even when you move beyond straight-to-video fare like Sinful Temptations (2001) to mainstream vehicles like 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) or Basic Instinct (1992), titillation comes as cheap as a can of Pringles. Even independent films, like David Cronenberg's Crash (1996) or the Wachowski brothers' Bound (1996), sex follows the normative course, where two attractive people go to bed, wake up, and think, "Let's go again."

On the opposite side of the gulf, the romantic comedy seems terrified of exhibiting what happens after consenting adults are drawn to each either. Why is it heretical to show any of Meg Ryan's army of leading men exploring the polymorphic delights of her body? Because Meg doesn't have orgasms in places other than Manhattan delicatessens? Because her contract forbids nipple exposure?

The no-frills DVD release of Better Than Sex gives us an actual romantic comedy with the sexual ingredients included. The plot is expectedly threadbare. Wildlife photographer Josh (played by David Duchovny lookalike David Wenham) meets dress designer Cin (Susie Porter) at a Sydney party. They chat it up, grab a cab, and head into the night together. Once Cin finds out that Josh lives in London and is leaving for home in three days, she's tempted by the prospect of a no-strings-attached romp. Josh is riding the same vibe. In a matter of moments, it's a cup of tea, a slice of bread, and How Great Thou Art.

In the morning, instead of suffering some internal recrimination about What This All Means, they simply have sex again. To Cin's surprised delight, Josh goes Down Under and we are made privy to Cin's thoughts as he does so. "Good. Good. Go to the left," she narrates. "What if I come too fast?" It's refreshingly real. When two people sleep together for the first time, their most insecure thoughts are the ones involving in-bed performance. They aren't worried about marriage or meeting the parents. They're wondering whether X will collide with Y with enough attitude to make the stars realign.

Cin and Josh's concerns aren't Woody Allenesque neuroses. These are the pragmatic considerations of two people toughened by coital experience and fiercely hoping their next encounter will be their best. They are gratified and relieved when that, indeed, comes to pass. The film suggests that sexual chemistry more often than not is a bedrock piece of any relationship's foundation, more than whether you meet each other at the top of the Empire State Building. It's what, early on, binds these two together, and what keeps Josh in Cin's apartment day after day.

But the film does owe a debt to Allen's work. Before he became an exhausted self-recycler, Allen was among the first contemporary filmmakers to place sex at the center of complex relationships, unapologetically. In fact, Teplitzky steals from Allen's Annie Hall (1977) in that his two leads spend much of the film speaking directly to the camera. Better Than Sex cheerfully borrows one of Allen's best jokes, about oral sex or otherwise, from Annie Hall: "After awhile it felt like my jaw was going to drop out of my head," Josh tells the camera.

Such lifting suggests one of the film's problems, namely, it breaks no new ground in the subject of The Differences Between Men and Women. (To stumble across a toilet seat joke in a 21st century film is like finding a Members Only jacket at Barney's.) In particular, Cin morphs into a stereotypical female (spending too much time in the bathroom, getting jealous) as the script demands, when earlier she appears much too comfortable and grounded to be that ridiculous.

This is done in the futile quest to find a compelling storyline. After all, the entire affair can't be the old in and out. But the film's final act is rather unforgivable, saddled with a 1980s video moment of Josh wandering the streets wondering if He Really Loves Her and the chase to the airport we have seen a hundred times before.

Still, such flaws are redeemed by the movie's ease with its principals' sexuality. Both lounge around in Cin's loft apartment in the nude with an enjoyable lack of self-consciousness and perfection. ("Am I getting fat," Josh wonders at one point while staring at his six-packless stomach.) Cin is freckled, unequally proportioned, and wears her hair close-cropped. She's incredibly sexy. Teplitzky understands what real sensuality is, as his shot of Cin nude at the piano, her backside framed as if she were a painting, proves.

The DVD release offers only a few trailers to supplement its widescreen presentation. Still, the lack of a director's commentary is probably apt. Nothing ruins good sex more than talking about it.

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