John (Gallagher) betrays his wife, Ann (MacDowell), by sleeping with her sister, Cynthia (Giacomo). Things get even more complicated when old buddy Graham (Spader) turns up to record all the repressed sexuality on his camcorder.
As you'll know from reading the August (89) issue of Empire, Steven Soderbergh dashed off the script for Sex, Lies and Videotape in a week in an act of 'personal catharsis', based on his own trudges through the quagmire of intimate relationships. This leads one to the conclusion that Steven Soderbergh must be one very weird dude.
For Sex, Lies and Videotape is a startling movie. Startling in its subject matter: adultery, masturbation, voyeurism are all given a kinky twist via the intrusion of 80s technology. Startlingly competent, for this, the 26-year old director's first feature, so impressed the Cannes Film festival jury that they gave it the Palme d'Or for Best Movie and voted its star, James Spader, Best Actor. And startling is the fact that a film so light on action and heavy on chat can be so achingly funny without having being crafted by a young Woody Allen.
The story revolves around just four characters living in the heat of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A philandering yuppie lawyer John (Peter Gallaher), upwardly thrusting in every sense; his beautiful wife (Andie MacDowell), a positive binbag of neuroses about everything from sex to the families of airline casualties; her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) who, by contrast, is about as liberated as a woman can be without earning the sobriquet 'nymphomaniac' and Graham (Spader), John's old rousting partner who turns up after nine years, mysteriously changed. The character Soderbergh admits comes closest to himself, Graham, is a 'recovering liar' and his arrival as an 'apostle of honesty' is a catalyst which brings everyone else's deceptions, hang-ups and hypocrisies bubbling to the surface.
Graham, though, is hardly Joe Average himself. Fascinated by women, he's unable to relate to them sexually except through the eye of a video camera. Which, given his determination to tell the truth at all costs, gets him into trouble.
An unlikely sounding comedy, granted. But what makes sex. lies and videotape work is that the characters are so believable. It's a kind of Annie Hall-cum-thirtysomething-Emmanuelle that makes you laugh and squirm on your seat with embarrassed recognition both at the same time. I defy any woman to hear the penis conversation ('I thought it would be kinda all smooth, like a test tube') and not giggle as she recalls some adolescent (ahem) awakening.
With huge expectations for this movie both here and in the States, Soderbergh is now one of the hottest director's in Hollywood, with producers, moguls and stars all falling over themselves for a slice of the boy wonder. Hopefully, when Soderbergh next trawls his psyche for material, his post-Cannes innings with the Tinsteltown crazies shouldn't produce a film any less wonderfully weird than this one. For, to paraphrase Ann in Sex, Lies and Videotape: 'What would he know about a normal frame of mind?'
Soderbergh has assembled his cast into a fascinating jigsaw of neuroses, which then leap from the screen thanks to his intriguingly intellectual script.