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Better Than Sex

Reviewed By Mark Freeman
Posted 12/16/00 09:12:10

"Sex is Better Than Better Than Sex"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Imagine somebody making a movie of an issue of Cleo or Cosmopolitan and you'll come close to Teplitsky's wearisome new film Better Than Sex. It subscribes to a tedious current trend in Australian film which involves people in confined spaces - a bedroom, a loungeroom, a backyard - talking endlessly, intimately, and inanely about sex: wanting it, getting it, doing it and enjoying it.

Whilst John Curran's recent film Praise managed to concentrate on the sex lives of its protagonists for much of the film, it also managed a depth of character, a complexity that others in this emergent sub-genre seem to lack. There's a strong sense of immaturity in these films, as if suddenly our filmmakers have become thirteen year olds peeking into the imagined lives of grown ups. The rebellious sibling to this attitude is a strong desire to shock, to discuss intimacies rendered taboo, so Better Than Sex, like Daniel Nettheim's Angst spends half its time working the word 'clitoris' into conversation or tackling discussions on oral sex and ejaculation. What it means is that Teplitsky's film becomes tedious, mundane and not even remotely controversial. It tries hard to be frank and insightful in its discussions of sex, but ends up just sounding like a list of topics in the Cosmopolitan archive.

The room that imprisons our two sexual gymnasts is, of course, the bedroom, in the home of Cynthia (Susie Porter). After a party, she and potential shag Joshua (David Wenham) return to her place for a spot of horizontal folk-dancing. It's no surprise that the two slowly develop a relationship beyond the sex, although the sex features fairly heavily in the first forty-eight hours. What we're left with is a question of how long it will take them before they realise they can't live without each other. And when they're not having sex, Cynthia and Joshua talk about sex, long involved, ultimately flaccid conversations on every angle, element and position. So we get the oral sex discussions, the commitment discussions, the pick up discussions. This is then followed by such fascinatingly original topics such as: How many people have you slept with, when did you first do it, do you like it when I do this or that? You can't help but see the Cosmo headlines in every scene: What happens when the one night stand doesn't leave? The best oral sex ever! Should you swallow? Why your man won't put the toilet seat down. It's a wonder Teplitzky doesn't insert Dolly Doctor or a sealed section into the film to complete the image.

Better than Sex offers a couple of Australia's finest actors in David Wenham and Susie Porter the chance to display their talents (in both a literal and figurative sense), but the script is so uninspired that they really have to labour for too much of this film. They milk some good lines for all their worth, and they certainly ensure that the characters become quite endearing, likeable people by the film's conclusion. But too often the direction and script lead them astray. Montage sequences are the standard cliché of aimless walking, downcast eyes and a popular ballad playing in the background - essentially a music clip. Teplitsky employs a direct to camera device which soon proves a burden. What begins as a sort of Greek chorus of friends commenting on, advising, and reacting to the action becomes an irritation all too quickly as it descends into a fairly uninspired he says she says dichotomy. It's played for laughs, but becomes simplistic and absurd, detracting from the film rather than adding anything of significance. As well as the direct to camera address by Cynthia and Joshua and their respective friends, Teplitsky also makes us endure each character's inner monologue before, during and after the deed. The monotonous narration of each participant having sex is enough to shut down your desire for life - it's like a soliloquy from a porn film, complete with the oohs and ahhs, the grunts and moans, to the left a bit, to the right a bit - you get the idea. Again, nothing of significance is achieved by this tactic, although it does create a couple of opportunities for some cheap laughs. It's a pity that the laughs in this film are so cheap, the script so facile, because with a little further work, and a few alternate decisions, Better Than Sex could have been a much better film.

Teplitsky's direction stumbles over these structural decisions, and never really recovers. That said, the camera work and lighting in Better Than Sex are exemplary. Slow, silent zooms are an effective lead into both characters, far more revealing and intimate than the inane dialogue they have to utter when they speak. The streaming light bathes Wenham and Porter in luxurious golds and browns, and this is the closest this film comes to any sort of eroticism or true sensuality. The space they occupy is vast, warm, and generous, and Teplitsky uses it well, utilising light, angle, shadow and obstruction to develop the intimacy of the room. Teplitsky is not untalented - more than anything, though, his own screenplay prevents his direction from truly flourishing as it should. This film may well suffer from the plague of the writer/director; the lack of objectivity over the script prevents a more critical appraisal of what works and what doesn't. Teplitsky is too close to these characters he has created, and can't step back to detect when they utter a false note. So whilst Better Than Sex does offer some pleasures - the performances of the leads, some interesting camerawork, some amusing episodes - it doesn't achieve its main objectives.

Setting out to analyse love, sex and the whole damn thing, as well as exploring issues of gender, commitment and eroticism, Better Than Sex comes up with nothing you haven't read or heard before. It manages to be diverting and sporadically amusing, but fails to achieve its lofty goals. There are indeed a few things that are better than sex. Unfortunately Better Than Sex is not one of them.

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