I’ve been stewing over Sex and Death 101 for a few days now, and I still can’t formulate any sticky thoughts on the movie — the only thing I can say for certain is that it’s an embarrassment. A lazy, stupid, overlong, deliriously unfunny, spectacularly bland embarrassment. Like Amy Heckerling’s straight-to-DVD film I Could Never Be Your Woman, Sex and Death 101 is another brightly lit, poorly executed comedy with a similar brand of bored campiness and a number of veteran actors who are clearly either 1) trying to grasp onto that last bit of fame before toiling away the rest of their years emceeing infomercials or 2) repaying a debt to a past-his-prime director for a big break back in the ’90s. In Heckerling’s film, it was Paul Rudd (Clueless) trying to lend some cultural capital as a solid to Heckerling; and in his first film in six years (and the first anyone has heard of since he wrote Demolition Man in 1993), Daniel Waters’ cashes in a favor from Winona Ryder, reteaming with her for the first time since Heathers in the misguided hope of rekindling that old magic.
But what I’ve come to learn over the past few months watching I Could Never Be Your Woman, Allan Moyle’s Weirdsville (a movie I couldn’t finish, which is why we have no review), and now Sex and Death 101 is that those coming of age standards for late blooming Gen X’ers — Heathers, Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, and Clueless — were weird aberrations, the product of the exact right cast at the exact right time, movies that were fueled by more than the sum of their parts, films that showed an exceptional potential for awfulness but somehow accidentally struck just the right zietgeistian tone to transcend their mediocre scripts and inept directors. Just look at the other films those three directors are collectively responsible for: Loser, Hudson Hawk, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Look Who’s Talking, Look Who’s Talking Now, Jailbait and Happy Campers. In fact, with one exception (Moyle’s Empire Records, another awful film that nevertheless hit the right chord at just the right time for some), the three directors haven’t made anything worthwhile since their generation-defining hits, which is probably why the three are so seldom heard from anymore — they can’t even surpass the low threshold for talent required by today’s studio execs, many of whom grew up on these same films.
And you know exactly how bad Sex and Death 101 is going to be in the opening scene, which features fucking Natalie (Mindy Cohn) from “The Facts of Life” as the lead character’s lesbian receptionist. That lead character is Roderick Blank (Simon Baker), a happily engaged, smuggish, organic fast-food entrepreneur with better hair and teeth than personality (or acting ability). He’s about to get married to the perfect woman (Julie Bowen) when he receives a mysterious email listing the 29 women he’s slept with, in order, as well as the next 72 women he’s about snog. Engaged, he doesn’t initially realize that the next 72 women on the list will be his next lays until his bachelor party, when a stripper trips and falls on his penis (true story). When he learns the stripper’s name, he puts 2 and 99 together and figures it out with the help of an insidious heavenly organization, in the form of three oracles, Alpha (Robert “Bunny Colvin” Wisdom), Beta (Tanc Sade), and Fred (Patton Oswalt), the only semi-amusing character in the film. It turns out, due to a clerical error, Roderick was sent the list of his future conquests by mistake, while a group of other people were inadvertently emailed the date and time of their death. Go figure.
So, what does a man with a list of his next 70 sexual partners do? Well, he finds them and fucks them, of course, a plot contrivance (as Patton Oswalt’s character suggests) perfect for the music montage. Unfortunately, we are instead forced to endure nearly all 72 of his beddings, which include lesbians, an elderly woman on her death bed, a busload of virgins who take advantage of him while he’s unconscious, and — of course — ending with Death Knell (Winona Ryder), a serial coma-inducer who puts men permanently asleep because of an old grudge she has against an ex-husband. But, before the risibly bad climax, we have to cope with Roderick’s emotional struggles — at first, he’s giddy with having a list of his future fuck buddies, but he soon realizes that there is no joy in the conquest if you know who it’s going to be. So, in an effort to subvert the list, we must suffer an extra half-hour, through an interminable relationship with a veterinarian (Leslie Bibb), not on the list, with whom he falls in love.
Sadly, Winona Ryder — who actually manages to rise above the tragically unfunny material — has no more than five minutes’ worth of screen time, just enough to poke her head in and fulfill her career obligations to Daniel Waters (though, to be fair, Beetlejuice probably had more to do with her eventual popularity than did Heathers). Moreover, the maniacal cheerfulness of all the characters suggests that Sex and Death 101 is supposed to be a biting satire of some sort. Unfortunately, it has all the teeth of a geriatric blowjob and no discernible target of satire, and if farce is what Waters is going for, only his attempt is farcical. It’s a shame, too, because he manages to amass a pretty fun cast of likeable faces that few can attach a name to (e.g., Neil Flynn, the janitor on “Scrubs”; Dash Mihok, the poor man’s Michael Rappaport; Rob Benedict, from “Felicity”; Julie Bowen from “Ed”; and Leslie Bibb, Ricky Bobby’s wife in Talledega Nights).
In the end, unfortunately, Sex and Death 101 is the exactly the movie the title portends: Late-night Cinemax fare, the sort of movie to offer just enough exposed breasts to keep a 15-year-old intrigued (yes, Sophie Monks’ are among them), but not enough to entertain him, resulting in next morning’s ultimate embarrassment: A mother who walks in on her son, asleep with his dick in his hand, an appropriate metaphor for Daniel Waters’ efforts here.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.Asleep, With Its Dick in Its Hand
Film | April 10, 2008 | Comments ()