Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Released:  1989

Cast:  James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo

Oscar Nominations:  Best Original Screenplay (Steven Soderbergh)

SUMMARY:  In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Ann Mullany (Andie MacDowell) is having relationship problems with her husband John (Peter Gallagher).  John is a very good lawyer, and at his request Ann has quit her job.  Ann has never really enjoyed sex, and has recently started having an aversion to John touching her in any way.  Her frustration with him has just multiplied after learning that he invited an old college buddy to stay at their house for a few days until he can find an apartment — without telling Ann.  John is still at work when the friend, Graham (James Spader) arrives, so Ann greets him alone.  The two manage to strike up a conversation, though both are nervous, and Ann quickly realizes that Graham is a very different person than John.  At dinner that evening, after John returns, he also realizes this:  Graham lives a very unstructured lifestyle, doing what he wants when he wants, and caring little about material possessions.  John also discloses that a former girlfriend of Graham’s, named Elizabeth, has also come back to Baton Rouge.  In the following days, Ann helps Graham find an apartment, and occasionally shows up there when she’s bored.  One day she notices a collection of videotapes, all with women’s names on them:  when she questions Graham, he reluctantly  explains that each of them contains an interview with a different woman about her sexuality.  Ann is horrified and embarrassed, and quickly leaves.  She tells her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), about Graham, but does not disclose the reason why her opinion of him has suddenly changed.  Cynthia is very different from Ann, and completely unbeknownst to Ann, has been having an affair with John.  This does not stop Cynthia from becoming intrigued at the prospect of an available man, and when she realizes that there’s something strange about him, she just shows up at his apartment and introduces herself.

Graham readily tells Cynthia about the tapes, and that they were the reason Ann freaked out.  When she asks him if he uses them to get off, he confirms this (he has already told Ann that he is impotent in the company of another person).  Graham then abruptly asks Cynthia if she wants to make a tape, and after questioning him about the nature of the interview (and learning that nobody but Graham ever sees the tapes), she agrees.  When they find out, both Ann and John are horrified.  However, the conversations have somewhat emboldened Ann, and she point-blank asks him if he is having an affair, specifically an affair with Cynthia.  He denies this emphatically and goes out of his way to reassure Ann that he is faithful, but one day she finds a pearl earring under the bed.  While visiting her sister some days earlier, Ann learned that Cynthia had misplaced a pearl earring; thus, her suspicions are confirmed.  Ann goes over to Graham’s and asks to make a tape.  When she finally returns home some hours later, she informs John that she wants a divorce, and that she has been at Graham’s making a tape.  A furious John goes to the apartment, throws Graham out of the house and locks it, then sits down to watch Ann’s tape.  In it, he sees Ann confess that she has had thoughts of an affair with Graham.  Rather than just ask questions, Graham gets involved in a discussion with Ann on the tape, which leads to her seizing the camera and turning it on him.  Under pressure he admits that he has spent nearly a decade reinventing himself from the pathological liar he once was, in the hopes of both becoming a better person and winning back ex-girlfriend Elizabeth.  He and Ann then kiss on the sofa, and Graham turns the camera off.  John unlocks the apartment and joins Graham outside, where he reveals that he once slept with Elizabeth while she and Graham were dating.  After he leaves Graham destroys all of the videotapes and his camera.  In the days after, John gets into trouble at the office, having frequently neglected clients in order to sneak over to Cynthia’s.  That relationship is also over, and Cynthia and Ann make a fragile peace after Ann visits Cynthia at work.  Upon leaving the bar where Cynthia works, Ann goes over to Graham’s apartment.

MY TAKE:  This movie starts out seeming like a very over-sexed movie, and though that does play a central role in the plot, the movie turns out to be more about relationships.  Basically, the shit hits the fan when Graham shows up.  Until then, John and Cynthia are happy, and if Ann’s not happy, she’s accepted being unhappy.  Then Graham suddenly arrives, and both women seem to start questioning their (relative) happiness.  Ann also grows a spine, which helps.  For some reason, talking about her sexual history seems to sort of enlighten Cynthia to what she wants out of life, and what she is currently getting.  After making the tape, she is way less enamored with John, and actually breaks up with him pretty quickly.  Spending time with Graham seems to have a lot of the same effect on Ann, but it sort of makes her confront reality, or the facts that she maybe didn’t want to see.  When she first asked John if he was having an affair, she was very relieved to be convinced that he was not, but when she finally leaves him (after making the tape), she is fairly unemotional.  I was amazed at some of the decisions of the characters:  first, I couldn’t believe that Cynthia would actually have an affair with her sister’s husband, or vice versa, and then, I couldn’t believe that Ann accepted John’s denial of said affair.  It was pretty clear to me that he was trying to cover his ass.  I was also rather amazed that Graham could convince so many women to talk openly about their sex lives on camera.  It seems like a very private thing to me.  Finally, I was surprised that Ann and Cynthia could make up so quickly.  I know that I would not have had such nice feelings for my sister for a very long time, had she done that to me.

I did discover one fun fact about this movie, via the credits:  the guy in Cynthia’s bar, the one that is always hitting on both her and Ann?  That guy was played by Steven Brill, whom I recognized as creating the characters in the Mighty Ducks movies, and also for directing the hilarious weight-loss-camp movie Heavyweights.  He also directed Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, Without a Paddle, and Drillbit Taylor; as an actor, he also appeared in The Wedding Singer, Mr. Deeds, and Knocked Up.

RATING:  Surprisingly okay.

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