Something About Sex (1998): An Affair To Remember

Dave gets lairy with Adam Rifkin’s bawdy ensemble comedy.

In 1988, having attracted a litany of Hollywood suits with his acclaimed debut, Never on Tuesday (1988), a twenty-one year-old (!) Adam Rifkin was summoned by the then-president of 20th Century Fox, Craig Baumgarten, to pitch some ideas. Being a huge fan of Planet of the Apes (1968), Rifkin suggested a sequel which was met with great enthusiasm by Fox executives, who fast-tracked ‘Planet of the Apes: The Final Battle’ into production with Tom Cruise mooted as the lead. Alas, by the end of the year, a regime change ousted Baumgarten and, after several rewrites, Rifkin’s dream project was abandoned.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s just another entry in the weighty of tome of Tinseltown what-might-have-beens. On a smaller but no less important scale, it offers a moment to consider that without this crushing blow to the ambitious young filmmaker, we might not have seen the likes of The Invisible Maniac (1990), Psycho Cop Returns (1993) and SOMETHING ABOUT SEX. Admittedly, the last of this threesome doesn’t quite yield the same cult appeal as the other two – but Rifkin’s treatise on infidelity is a brilliantly written dissection of modern-day relationships that remains as pertinent now as it did during its barely acknowledged release.

At a dinner party for a group of close friends, their guest, an acerbic author by the name of Art Witz (a fetchingly bewigged Jason Alexander), drags the conversation over to the subject of marriage. “I think that monogamy isn’t natural,” he muses. “It turns reputable people into liars”. A throwaway assertion, but one that lingers in the minds of each of the three couples in attendance – notably the women – as it begins a period of self-examination that lays bare the fragilities within each pairing.

From the outset, Something About Sex seems derivative of Woody Allen’s ‘Bergman of Manhattan’ period, specifically Husbands and Wives (1992). However, Jonathan Silverman’s character, Joel, doing a bob-on impression of the New York auteur aside, Rifkin’s picture is ruder and far more raucous. From Joel’s regular well-lubed handjobs with a mature Korean lady, and Sam’s (Patrick Dempsey) porn addiction; to well-endowed cadavers, and Reuben’s (a ponytailed Rifkin) love for BBWs (“To be smothered in female flesh like a waterbed of love”), Something About Sex unloads a relentless bombardment of genuinely funny scenarios delivered by a bunch of cleverly curated characters.

Impressive performances come from Christine Taylor, Leah Lail and Amy Yasbeck, although Alexander’s brief and incendiary cameo sees him practically walk away with the picture. That opening scene, with Francis Kenny’s restless photography swirling around the verbal sparring at the dinner table, is arguably the high point in terms of style and irresistibility. The rest is simply a bonus. Something About Sex might not be mentioned in the same breath as its fellow ensemble-led and Criterion-friendly indie peers from the ‘90s (such as Noah Baumbach’s Kicking & Screaming (1995) and Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998)), but maybe its time is yet to come…

Taking a bow under its original title, ‘Denial’, at the Seattle International Film Festival on 21st May 1998 (ironically the day before Stillman’s film), distributors Donald Kushner and Peter Locke weren’t sure what to do with Rifkin’s movie. Writing in Variety, Ken Eisner noted how ‘Denial’ “tested poorly in Las Vegas, then brought down the house in Seattle, with a youthful festival audience missing lines amidst screams of laughter” before suggesting that “it could be money in the bank to a distributor able to convince the public that this sexy [and] frequently hilarious pic is more than an uncensored sitcom.” [1] The Los Angeles Times forecast ‘Denial’ hitting cinema screens on 4th December ’98. For whatever reason, it didn’t make it. Instead, the film debuted on the small screen via Cinemax just before Christmas. Video beckoned six months later along with the name change to its current moniker.

USA ● 1998 ● Comedy ● 92mins

Jonathan Silverman, Leah Lail, Patrick Dempsey, Christine Taylor, Ryan Alosio, Amy Yasbeck, Jason Alexander ● Wri./Dir. Adam Rifkin

[1] Denial Film Review by Ken Eisner, Variety, 13th July 1998.

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