Heathers & Sex and Death 101

The occasion for the re-release of the cult classic Heathers on DVD isn’t actually, as the box says, a 20th reunion (that’s not until 2009) or much new material (the commentary is from the last release), but rather cult-reissue-happy Anchor Bay’s release of Sex and Death 101, the new film from Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters, which had a brief theatrical run during the spring of 2008.

Waters, visible in the extras for both DVDs, seems like the classic brainy-but-alienated screenwriter: a former video-store employee with a slightly geeky sense of dark humor. After Heathers, his first produced script, he applied his mixture of goofy wordplay and psychological twistyness to oddball (and underrated) Hollywood projects like Batman Returns (more of the latter) and Hudson Hawk (more of the former). But in the commentary for Sex and Death, his second feature as a director, he casually mentions his frustration with Hollywood, and makes an offhand reference to his “commercially successful younger brother” Mark, who directed Mean Girls, among others.

Admittedly, Heathers is a hell of an act to follow. 19 (not 20) years later, it holds up well as an act of empathetic but barbed satire; take out the shoulder pads and a few valley-girl inflections, and it could satirize today’s youth culture just as easily. Not that it would get through the system Waters resents: the temporary murderousness of Veronica (Winona Ryder), exacting vengeance against her popular clique of same-named girls, would be a harder sell post-Columbine, something Waters, director Michael Lehmann, and producer Denise Di Novi touch upon in “Return to Westerburg High,” a featurette new to this “reunion” edition.

The thoughts on the current viability of a comedy featuring teen suicide are appreciated, if somewhat cursory; it’s one of the only details not covered on another, earlier featurette also included here. “Return” hits many of the same points with fewer participants and less backstory: just the central three (also the commentary participants), rather than the cast members who appear elsewhere. So this new edition is inessential for anyone who already owns the previous DVD incarnation of Heathers, but it has value as a double feature with Sex and Death 101 beyond mere marketing. The new Waters film mines similar territory — its title almost sounds like a focus-grouped alternate for Heathers — but doesn’t have the timeless zing of the earlier picture.

The concept has promise: a few weeks away from marriage, Rod (Simon Baker) receives an email listing every woman he has ever bedded — only the list goes beyond his fiancée (number 29), all the way up to number 101. With the help of the list, Rod embraces his inner practical hedonist; after all, he can near-immediately suss out whether a woman is worth his time, sexually speaking. It’s a clever, prickly concept.

But something with the film is off at first — Waters’ quips may be trying to parody the Maxim nation, but they don’t take off, possibly because Simon Baker shows so little comic flair, deadpan or otherwise. His double-takes and frustrated screams are wan, and the sex sketches play like a 30-something American Pie, barely resembling satire. Waters, directing his own screenplay on a budget, belabors his premise with repetition; over on the Heathers DVD, he admits that his first draft of the high-school classic was a mammoth 250 pages, and much of Sex and Death feels similarly unedited.

Winona Ryder in Sex and Death 101

The movie is almost rescued, though, by those same writerly indulgences. After almost an hour, when complications deeper than logistics finally kick in, the movie finds a dark-chocolate-y flavor, mixing black humor, romance, and just plain melancholy (“where does it say I have to declare a major?” Waters asks on the commentary). As Rod’s life falls apart — the sex grows boring, he tussles with fate by pursuing a woman off the list, and attempts to steer clear of the sort-of serial killer Death Nell (Winona Ryder) — desperation becomes the movie’s subject, not its mode of operation. There’s also a metaphysical angle when Rod visits a group of otherworldly men dealing with the fallout from freak occurrences like emailed sex lists and sort-of serial killers (Patton Oswalt is hilarious as the lowest-ranked of the three, full of ideas for list loopholes).

It’s not quite enough, but this second-half reinvention makes the film watchable and the accompanying Waters commentary, a motormouthed solo affair, an interesting listen. Waters sounds excited to finally make his own movie, and maybe even more excited to talk about it, rattling through the usual details of technical decisions, casting, and film references, but at twice the speed, personality, and opinions. His dislikes (apart from Hollywood) include cars, bachelor parties, and imagining audience laughter.

Back on the Heathers commentary, Waters’ energy is similar, but he bounces off of Lehmann and Di Novi, fixating on minutiae (like which swear-word swaps still bug him after all these years) while the director and producer shepherd the discussion. The Lehmann collaboration, especially, appears to have been a productive one: Waters professes a general love of Kubrick, and Lehmann points out how they imitated the barracks scenes in the then-recent Full Metal Jacket when lighting the Heathers cafeteria scenes.

Though she doesn’t sit in on either commentary, Winona Ryder also emerges as a major reason that Heathers works as well as it does. The commentators mention that the Veronica character was originally less likable, and Ryder’s vulnerability gave the character more dimension. Ryder also appears in the new Waters film, mostly lurking in the background, and the similar fractured empathy she provides when she finally gets more than a few lines — a quality lacking in much of Simon Baker’s bland performance — comes too late.

Heathers, then, which — like a lot of great comedies — seems so simple and easy, is more of a delicate balance than its quotable script and bold ideas would have you believe; even a quick wit like Waters has trouble recreating the alchemy that has been remixed successfully (Mean Girls, from his aforementioned brother and Tina Fey) and not (Jawbreaker). In a few devastating gestures, Heathers makes Sex and Death 101 look like a wannabe — a script in search of a director and a star to complete the clique.

RATING 8 / 10