“Why, oh why, oh why, oh—why did I ever leave Ohio?”
Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote those lyrics way back in 1953 for Rosalind Russell to wail in Wonderful Town. Had they known then what would happen 53 years later, they might have filed an early injunction against a sophomoric, confused and frankly filthy little movie called The Oh in Ohio. Is it too late now?
This is a mindless comedy about sex that is never remotely funny, with a cast that is never remotely sexy, and which, in one case, is downright revolting. It has the grave misfortune of starring Parker Posey, who manages the remarkable miracle of working endlessly without knowing the first thing about acting. Ms. Posey is a cheerful but inept poster girl for the “I Try But No Can Do” School of Dramatic Art. In The Oh in Ohio, she grins, chirps, rolls her eyes and chews the scenery through the overtaxing role of Priscilla, a Cleveland P.R. agent who, on the surface, has it all. She’s pretty, successful at her job and happily married. Her husband (Paul Rudd) is a biology teacher in the Cleveland public-school system, so his depression is understandable.
But there’s more. Priscilla is sexually dysfunctional. In fact, she has never had an orgasm. So her frustrated husband has been driven to such a low level of self-esteem that he gains weight, stops shaving, turns into a pudgy, morose slob and moves into the garage. Priscilla seeks counseling. A marriage counselor advises, “The center of the self is the penis.” Liza Minnelli, of all people, livens things up in one all-too-brief cameo, playing a bleach-blond sex therapist who teaches masturbation classes like a ticking metronome in pink spangles, barking: “Liberate your labia!” and “Value your vulva!” Priscilla moves on to banana lube and sex-toy technology, but once she discovers the invention of the vibrator, she turns into an insatiable sex addict, achieving “13 and a half orgasms a day,” none of them with her husband.
Naturally, he leaves her for good, but she doesn’t care: She has her vibrator. She even wears it to her company’s board meetings, jerking and screeching all over the conference room like a ballistic chainsaw. He sleeps with one of his students. She becomes a raging slut in mark-down, off-the-rack Anne Klein knockoffs, goes the lesbian route with luscious Heather Graham, who was wise enough to have her name removed from the credits, and (this is the gruesome part) finally achieves sexual ecstasy for the first time in her life with Wayne the Pool Guy, a tub and drain installer played by—Danny DeVito??? Clearly, this is a woman who needs hospitalization.
Danny DeVito in a bathing suit and ponytail? An entire movie set in Cleveland? Legendary Liza Minnelli in a walk-on? All painful proof of how low movies have sunk. Billy Kent, the director making his feature debut after a career in MTV parodies, should go back to hemorrhoid commercials. Adam Wierzbianski, the writer of a script that was born dead, is the managing director of a Polish newspaper in Brooklyn. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up. Parker Posey is a spectacularly mediocre actress who tries too hard. Paul Rudd is a versatile actor who doesn’t try at all. Neither of them have the range, subtlety or comic timing to carry off a movie this broad.
At any rate, The Oh in Ohio has no clear idea what kind of movie it wants to be in the first place; it just titters and smirks and jerks all over the place. The title is a takeoff on the French porno book Story of O (O for orifice, in Ohio?), and it does tell you more about female anatomy than The Vagina Monologues, but there isn’t a provocative moment in the whole thing. Sexual dysfunction in modern relationships of all kinds is a serious subject for a movie. Sexual Healing, a new reality series on Showtime, is devoting an entire season to it, premiering July 21. Reducing so much contemporary pain, genuine anxiety and psychic therapy to 88 minutes of trashy jokes is a pathetic underachievement, even for amateurs.
A more rewarding and thoughtful treatment of sex can be found in the French film Time to Leave. It’s the second in a planned trilogy of works about death and mourning by François Ozon following Under the Sand (2000), which starred Charlotte Rampling as a widow unable to accept the drowning death of her husband.
Time to Leave stars French heartthrob Melvil Poupaud, star of James Ivory’s Le Divorce (he was the self-centered poet who left his pregnant American wife, played by Naomi Watts, for another woman), as Romain, a handsome, 31-year-old gay fashion photographer who is dying of a fully metastasized cancer. With only a 5 percent chance of survival, he makes a sobering decision to forgo chemotherapy and not fight a hopeless cause. Turning cynical, he alienates his family, breaks up with his loyal boyfriend, does too much cocaine and hides his diagnosis from everyone except his most trusted confidante—the wise, free-living, fiercely independent grandmother he has adored since childhood.
Dispensing sound advice with an arsenal of pills and vitamins, Jeanne Moreau has never been more poignant. In one unforgettable scene, she even shares her bed with her grown grandson, warning him that she sleeps in the nude. Only Moreau could carry off a scene that edgy with such an absence of risk. She just gets juicier with age.
Romain’s short stay in the country house where he spent the summers of his youth is the centerpiece of the film, during which his vulnerability is met with a big and understanding heart. The visit rekindles his benevolence; he stages a tender reunion with his boyfriend and his estranged sister; and, in an astonishing scene, he sleeps with a woman whose husband is sterile, giving them the child they desperately need for their own survival.
Mr. Ozon has a passion for the intense 50’s Hollywood “women’s pictures” of Douglas Sirk, but this time reverses the suffering by making his soap-opera heroine a gay man. The result is a mature, fiercely contemporary approach to death that never drifts into easy tears. Much of the film is told in flashbacks, and at least one of the memories is very funny when the adult Romain watches himself as an adolescent prankster, peeing in the holy water, then giggling as churchgoers bless themselves with it. A master of emotional control, the director keeps the mood surprisingly light between the sex, the anger and the sadness. Not a moment rings false. Deeply touching and brutally frank, Time to Leave is an evaluation of how a young man makes preparations to die and comes to grips with the cruelty of fate, finding himself in the process and succeeding with authority, dignity and grace.
Hail Mr. Macy!
In the week’s triptych of films about sex and gloom, David Mamet’s controversial Edmond, directed by Stuart Gordon, is the nastiest and most relentlessly depressing. A bland, miserable and dour-faced man in a Brooks Brothers suit goes mad on the subway, brandishing a knife. This grotesque and sometimes pretentious screen adaptation of an early Mamet stage piece examines the downward spiral of one of the little gray people in the societal skeleton of insignificant Mr. Cellophanes you would never notice in a crowd. You might not notice the movie either, were it not for a galvanizing, three-dimensional performance by William H. Macy in the title role that can only be described as electrifying.
A man known only as Edmond leaves his office exhausted, enraged and fed up with his banal life, drops into a shop with tarot cards in the window, and consults a fortune teller who tells him, “You’re not where you’re supposed to be.” Taking the old crone’s words literally, he insults his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon), walks out of their empty marriage with cruel rejection and begins an odyssey to the dark side. A stranger in a bar (Joe Mantegna) enables dormant prejudices against gays and blacks and reinforces the reasons real men don’t eat quiche: “pussy, power, money, release, gratification.” Revitalized and determined to get laid, Edmond wanders aimlessly through peep shows, tattoo parlors and numerous forms of credit-card prostitution, bargaining with whores, even demanding change and, in one case, a refund. Like Peter Finch in Network, fed up and unwilling to take it anymore, he’s a loser who has wasted 47 years of his life in a fog, but Edmond finds that instead of power, respect and a drop of that milk of human kindness the poets write about, he finds only treachery and betrayal.
Battered, bloody and ripped off by pawnbrokers, thieves and pimps, Edmond loses his wallet, his identity and his grip on reality, slides farther down the rabbit hole and ends up in dragon country. Before his night of debauchery and self-destruction ends, the movie erupts in a volcano of violence, and the diminutive sad sack everyone took for granted commits a murder that lands him in prison chains for life. The last time we see Edmond, beaten and sodomized by a burly black cellmate, he’s bald, covered with tattoos, unrecognizable behind a long Smith Brothers cough-drop-box mustache, and still questioning the meaning of Heaven and Hell before climbing into the arms of his lover with the ultimate resignation that infinity is nothing but darkness and doom.
Mr. Mamet is after something here, making you recoil from filthy Mametspeak shorthand while he struggles to make a profound and meaningful statement about the hypocrisy of rednecks, with the warning: Be careful of the people you hate, because you might just end up one of them. Edmond ends up in eternal damnation. But where is the surprise in getting there? The problem is that he is already so insane when the movie opens that the slide isn’t far off the graph. Also, there are too many of Mr. Mamet’s trademark show-off distractions in the script that only manage to annoy instead of clarify (the constant re-emergence of those tarot cards, the baffling use of the number 115 on doors and clocks). Ultimately, I feel the subject of the ordinary man who goes over the edge was explored with more coherence and empathy by Michael Douglas in the 1993 film Falling Down. But there is no question about the inspired tragedy and incinerating fury of Mr. Macy’s bravura center-ring performance. Your mind rarely digresses from the creative power of his hand on your pulse. He is supported darkly but stylishly by a stark parade of lacerating cameos from Julia Stiles, Denise Richards, Mena Suvari, Dylan Walsh, Debi Mazar and others. They’re on a trip, but who wants to tag along for a ride that makes you want to kill yourself?