His & Hers

Rounders
area theaters, starts Friday

Let's Talk About Sex
area theaters, starts Friday

I hate to say it, but men and women are both absurd mutants pressed from warped, useless templates, and I don't want any part of 'em. I've had it up to here with Mars and Venus; they're not our true homes. Let's meet for drinks on the moons of Jupiter and breed a new species of self-pollinating freakazoids who drink whiskey from teacups, write confessional folk songs with phat-ugly guitar licks, and drive hideous farm equipment to the nail salon.

Pardon the hyperbole, but it seems in order after watching two films marooned on Venus and Mars, respectively--Let's Talk About Sex and Rounders. The former is a no-budget quasi-documentary in which various over-coiffed Miami women dish about sex. The movie's calculating title isn't likely to save it from an early date with obscurity. (Rule of thumb: Slight, female-oriented indie that barely missed an NC-17--plus cast of unknowns, minus art house booking--equals "Blink and you'll miss it.")

The more expensive Rounders is a self-consciously gritty fantasy of life in the all-male underground of high-stakes poker. (Apparently "rounders," or poker pros, are an invisible but ubiquitous worldwide clan, kinda like vampires; the funny-looking Matt Damon acts as our trusty go-between, not unlike Wesley Snipes in Blade.)

Both films have an anthropological bent as they ostensibly lead us through the dark passageways of their chosen subcultures. In Rounders, that means many voiceovers (see below), peepholes in doors, and Scorsese-esque back entrances leading to speakeasy poker dens bathed in saturated reds and umbers. In fact, it's beautifully, even romantically shot.

Featuring what amounts to a cast of well-paid tics, this Midnight Cowboy-meets-The Graduate-meets-Good Will Hunting gives special attention to Damon's leaden, wannabe hard-boiled narration. (You can almost hear the pages turning as he reads unintentially funny lines like, "Listen, here's the thing. If you can't spot the sucker in your first half-hour, then you are the sucker.") Also on display: the Russian accent of John "Aye hee-am a goot ee-actor" Malkovich; and the insanely perky talents of Gretchen Mol (for those of you who haven't already stared long and hard at this month's Vanity Fair cover). The only actors who master their roles are John Turturro, as Damon's surrogate poker-dad, and Edward Norton, as Damon's thoroughly odious grifter-buddy, known as, um, Worm. Subtlety? No dice.

Damon's character is trying to get out of the poker world and make a go of it in the, ahem, legitimate realm of law. But Norton, who's just gotten out of jail and needs help with some debts, keeps pulling him back in the game, and away from Mol. ("She's domesticated you, man!") Damon's life becomes a battle between his poker-prodigy soul and his Mol-loving heart; according to this film's game plan, the two cannot coexist--especially since Mol is about as compelling as a bag of cotton balls. Like the good vampire, Damon can neither abide nor deny his essence. One might say Rounders is to gender what Jungle Fever was to interracial dating: We may like each other an awful lot, it says, and we may even love each other in a weird way. But we're never, ever gonna get it together to make a home with one another.

Being a typically female film, Let's Talk About Sex is far more conciliatory, but still pretty creepy. Halfway through, my friend turned to me and said, "This movie is making me scared of women." Fair enough--except that my friend is a woman. The premise is that an adorable pixie named Jazz (played by writer-director Troy Beyer) wants to create a TV talk show called Girl Talk, in which women get together and discuss "Dating and Mating in the '90s" (a mantra Jazz repeats until it achieves an icky slickness on the tongue). In order to win a spot on the local Miami TV station, she has just a few days to create a pilot. So she grabs a video camera and enlists her skanky girlfriends to walk the boardwalks and catwalks asking young, mostly gorgeous women about said topic. To Beyer's credit, the responses don't feel staged.

What follows is a '90s version of the consciousness-raising group, an amusing, soft-core dance of pseudo intimacy full of the halted openness one learns quickly at an all-girls school. These sun-kissed, moussed-out women want to say what they feel but don't want to say the wrong thing. When they do, Jazz and her friends get very quiet and look kind of guilty. What we mostly hear from these women are boilerplate complaints and comments: Guys never want to talk after sex. Guys don't do enough foreplay. Guys don't kiss enough. Guys never want to wear condoms. We'd love to penetrate them if they'd let us. Why can't we go topless in public? It's not the size of the boat but the motion of the ocean. Et cetera.

What's ignored are the truly uncomfortable questions about sex and its less enticing corollaries: money, politics, and power. For example, why do we women moan about the tyranny of the beauty myth while buying into it knowingly (as this film does quite unashamedly)? Why do we sometimes abandon our girlfriends when we've got a boy, and why do we villainize the "other" woman? Why do we have unprotected sex when we know better? What are the mechanisms of emotional manipulation we employ to hold onto men, and why do we let ourselves become financially dependent on them? Why are we politically apathetic when we know our mothers couldn't get legal abortions? Why do we complain that men are dogs without admitting a common weakness for bad boys? Why do we sublimate our personalities in the presence of the men we really want? Why do we complain that men don't care if we have orgasms, when we don't state our needs firmly enough in the sack?

And another thing: Beyer has an oddly exploitative eye for the female body. While she rarely shows her own, she pans enough sandy butts and naked breasts to stock an '80s-era girlie calendar. Still, for all its skin, the film is deeply unerotic, and its interspersed sex scenes smack of low-budget porn. When one woman boasts that she came four times the night before, the macha banality of it is depressing, particularly since the guy she slept with is a jerk who doesn't give a hoot about her.

The film's superficial, outsiderly take on women may have deeper roots: Without giving anything away, let's just say that Jazz has her private reasons for not feeling like a "real" woman. This internal conflict, and Jazz's need to document females anthropologist/pornographer-style, lies somewhere at the film's core. We're never sure if that's intentional or not, or how much of this character is invented and how much is the filmmaker herself.

Beyer has said, "I kept thinking about those conversations you have in clubs and restaurants in the ladies' room, when you'll confess your most intimate secrets to total strangers. I wanted to capture that kind of confessional on screen." Yes. I know exactly what she's talking about, and I have to applaud her for trying. Still, that vision may be part of the trouble here. I, too, have heard women complain about lovers in front of a disco's bathroom mirror; I've heard them bitch about their bodies or compliment each other; I've felt that insta-sista vibe between the mascara brush and the lipstick. This sort of instant bonding is one of the perks of the oppressed. But too often it's built from a context of "You're a babe, I'm a babe; men like us a lot." And the talk never reaches any real depth.

Similarly, Let's Talk About Sex is just a surface trip through female sexuality, leaving women viewers with a few knowing nods at the screen, a whole lot of questions, and the sense that, oops, maybe I really am a freak. One woman in the film says she's tired of all the Mars/Venus bullshit; it's time for us to come together. Right on, one wants to say. Unfortunately, the movie is sculpted in part from that very bullshit, and it does little of the heavy lifting needed to help us get off our respective planets.

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