Bright Lights Film Journal

Relax . . . It’s Just Sex (1999)

Relax . . . it’s just a movie – and a good one thanks to a sharp script and Jennifer Tilly

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Relax . . . It’s Just Sex opens promisingly, with a very funny send-up of 1950s black-and-white educational films about “threatening” topics like homosexuality. A booming male voice intones “This is a lipstick lesbian . . . This is a gay man, or what some might designate as a gym queen . . .” while said lesbian and gym queen revolve mindlessly on a dais like specimens at a zoo. The next scene we see is two naked men screwing blissfully in glorious color, a repudiation of the view of gay people as objects suggested by the opening. Writer-director P. J. Castellaneta keeps the laughs coming in the scenes that follow, preparing us for a lighthearted queer satire along the lines of, say, Kiss Me Guido.

It’s a little surprising, then, when the story moves into much darker directions, introducing a string of reality checks – HIV, gaybashing, romantic travails – that constantly threaten the cohesion of the likable group of queer and straight couples and singles presided over by faghag supreme Tara Ricotto (Jennifer Tilly). It’s to director P. J. Castellaneta’s credit that he modulates these elements, so there’s always some welcome cutting dish or satirical jab or authentic emotion to counter any tendency toward cliché and sentimentality, the twin curses of much of recent indie queer cinema. There’s something both fearless and heartfelt about this film that gives it a gravitas that’s also often scarce in the genre.

In this queer version of Friends, Tara nervously watches over her ensemble of fractured faggots, overwrought dykes, and her emotionally elusive boyfriend Gus (Timothy Paul Perez). Her main “girlfriend” is Vincey Sauris (Mitchell Anderson), a frustrated playwright looking for love and artistic success. Sarina (Cynda Williams) and Megan (Serena Scott Thomas) are lipstick lezzies involved in a painful divorce when Megan goes straight and Sarina takes up with scruffy baby butch Robin (Lori Petty). Meanwhile, Tara’s boyfriend’s brother Javi (Eddie Garcia) learns he’s HIV-positive and moves in with an eccentric artist named Buzz (T. C. Carson).

As in all such ensembles, the characters spend much of their time in crisis. Tara’s desperate to have a kid, so she wears out poor Gus by trying to extract his sperm using every possible position and at every opportunity, even while guests are arriving for a party. Vincey’s cute but can’t find a boyfriend; he’s still troubled by having been gaybashed in college. Sarina’s barely able to cope with her ex-girlfriend’s hetero conversion, and her new lover Robin worries endlessly that she won’t be able to replace her gorgeous predecessor. Javi and Buzz bitch and bicker over Javi’s medical treatments (in a timely if controversial touch, Buzz repudiates the link between HIV and AIDS, a la Peter Duesberg). Meanwhile, the fucked-out Gus wants to run off to the Middle East to find himself, and a pair of brainless happy-faced Christian gym queens provide window dressing.

If ridiculing gym queens is a bit too obvious, the film’s satire of other subjects keeps things lively. Early on Vincey conducts an informal survey of whether people “swallow or spit it out” after their partner comes, and the final word on this comes from a group of women who reveal a little-known secret: “We spit it out in mason jars and examine it at our weekly women’s meetings.” Vincey’s equation of love with ingesting his tricks’ semen also amuses: “And so I swallowed . . . at that point I felt I loved him.” Sperm is a veritable obsession here; even Tara can’t stop talking about it: “All I ask for is your honesty and your sperm,” she tells a weary Gus.

The film doesn’t discriminate in setting up its targets. Queer activism is skewed in a wonderful scene with Susan Tyrell and Seymour Cassel as Megan’s British parents, who are horrified and disgusted when she turns straight. Tyrell in particular is hilarious in her tirades against this unconscionable betrayal: “What will I tell my friends in P-FLAG?” she screams. After failing to force Megan to remain a lesbian, she viciously toasts Sarina, the ex-girlfriend, when she meets her daughter’s new man. And the insularity of queerdom is a frequent butt. During their breakup, Megan sighs to Sarina: “We haven’t had good sex since Martina won Wimbledon.”

On a darker note, Castellaneta introduces a starkly dramatic gaybashing scene that looks like something out of Boyz in the Hood. There are some troubling elements here, particularly in Vincey’s actions in response. (Best not to spoil it by spelling it out here.) But the scene has a visceral impact that’s undeniable, and prepares for the legitimately emotional ending, which will have some viewers fumbling for their hankies.

While the acting is generally strong, Jennifer Tilly is the standout here. As Tara she’s tremendously warm and giving, instantly believable as the sheltering straight woman whose obsession with helping her friends get their lives together provides the anchor they all need. Tilly’s physical voluptuousness and a voice that’s a mix of baby-doll squeak and authoritative rasp make her endlessly fascinating to watch. Lori Petty also registers strongly as the mini-butch overwhelmed by her feelings for Sarina. Petty, like Tilly, isn’t afraid to expose her emotions, and she does it particularly well in a scene where she overhears a potentially life-changing conversation between Sarina and Megan. The always welcome Paul Winfield appears in a near cameo as “Aunt Mahalia,” an aging queen who provides sage advice and a motherly embrace and commandingly refers to every young man as “young lady!”