Sunday, January 19, 2014

Threesome (1994)

There is the slight feel of an accident in how Threesome ended up a good movie. Movies that tackle primarily sex and relationships can date strangely fast for topics that have constant relevance. Assuming they go over well in the first place, they are so imprinted by directorial intent and sexual mores that their appeal can go misshapen weirdly quickly, even, or especially, if they are intending to shock or push boundaries. Threesome has good bones, though, convincing emotional balance and great acting, which ended up aging better and being more important than any way in which it positioned itself culturally.

Figuring out that last thing -- how shocking this movie really was -- is confusing, and I even saw it when it first came out (if it helps you place it, this movie came out the day Kurt Cobain's body was discovered). Clearly it was supposed to be outrĂ© (the word "threesome" itself was not nearly as folded into regular rhetoric as it is now), but beyond that contemporary reviews are headachingly contradictory and mostly negative: the movie is either "prudish and sexophobic," or a "minor exploitation flick"; full of "abundant sex, nudity and profanity" or "90s variation on those all-talk, no-action movies." Janet Maslin was especially sneering, calling it "utterly sexless, charmless" and only "alleged[ly] daring."

It's hard not to see confusion in sexual understanding reflected in the range of responses to the film, including to the fact that one of the main characters is gay: whatever it is writer/director Andrew Fleming was variably charged with trying to do, he apparently didn't do it. At least a couple reviews use "sitcom" as a point of negative comparison. I get that: the outlines of the film are shaded in pretty light pencil, but there's still a much better movie in there than it got credit for. Roger Ebert came closest at the time to seeing it for what it was, writing in his review: "What is strong in the movie is the language. Like many kids their age, these three are more bold in talk than action, and the movie sounds right; it sounds like undergraduate human dialogue, intended to shock, to liberate, to amuse . . . The three actors are all smart, and able to reflect the way kids sometimes use words, even very bold words, as a mask for uncertainty and shyness." He was right: the sex scenes in this movie were never really the main challenge; it was how the characters talked about sex, which has become much more common in the years since. Some of the conceits have even been become more or less written in stone, since, such as "sex is like pizza" (was Threesome the first?).

The movie is about three college students: a woman, Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle), who's a drama major, and two men, a business major bro, Stuart (Stephen Baldwin), and Eddy (Josh Charles), much smarter, and coming to terms with the fact that he might be gay. Stuart and Eddy are completely opposite but decent ying/yang roommates who end up with Alex as their third roommate by an administrative accident due to her man's name. The three of them develop an intense friendship criss-crossed by the tensions of not having what they want from each other (Alex wants Eddy, Eddy wants Stuart, Stuart wants Alex), although Eddy is a virgin, adding to the sense that this is a person who doesn't know who he is yet. Fueled by all these desires and tension, they become a group wholly unto themselves, constantly goofing off and roughhousing.

This, to my thinking, is what Threesome depicts so convincingly: one of those untenable, young, goofy, all-absorbing, almost familial friendships that is exclusionary, even rude, to the outside world, until it blows up or fizzles out and makes you wonder what happened. The movie is blessedly free of long isolated reaction shots: the actors really interact with each other the whole way through the story of this friendship. The fact that the narrator, Eddy, is gay, does not shock now, but coming out is realistically rough on him and the woman who wants him.

Which brings us to Lara Flynn Boyle, and her great, intelligent performance, as is Charles' (Baldwin is actually quite good too -- really! -- and well-cast, but he's missing range). Alex is sexually aggressive, real, expressive, not totally fair, impulsive and emotional, pretentious, needy, present, sad. She stands out among female characters to me twenty years later. In her first scene -- Eddy walks in on her in the shower -- the first thing we see her doing is checking out Eddy's penis. Her voice trembles with volcanic anger, as if lives are at stake, while confronting Stuart about eating her yogurt. She apologizes to Eddy later after coming on to him in the library -- writhing around on his desk until she orgasms -- with "I apologize for my exuberance," but immediately corrects herself: "I don't apologize for my exuberance, I revel in it!" before smashing Eddy up against the wall and demanding to know why he's not interested. She doesn't pretend to be cool, even as she tries to save face. She's hurt. ("I revel in it!" is another line that could be read as just pretentious or -- as it does to me -- as a young woman talking herself into an idea she's heard even as she speaks.) There is a tour de force meltdown in the latter half of the movie, after another rebuffed pass at Eddy, in which she's throwing books. Her delivery and follow-through in the line, "I'm sick of falling in love with guys whodon'tgiveafuckaboutme!" while she hurls a textbook across the room satisfies like a good base hit or completed TD. It's really good.

The biggest mistake in how critics viewed this film was to assume it thought it was cooler than it was; to assume that we were being told by this film, which is ultimately about people who can't be more than 20, that it's the final word on naughty triangulated relationships. Maybe that's how it was marketed, but the movie was not taking itself seriously in the way critics thought. If it does at times -- honestly I can't always tell if Fleming intended this or if it was an accident -- that actually ends up serving the convincing self-absorption of characters who are just juniors in college. In the first scene in which Eddy and Alex bond, she is smoking, wearing a beret, and they are talking about Catcher in the Rye. Maslin just can't stand this, but I wonder how could anybody think we're supposed to find these characters convincingly au courant? I've never felt the movie thought it was presenting sexual sophisticates. The characters are playing at it in the way you do at age twenty, as with all of Boyle's smoking and red-red lipstick and retro-chic wardrobe (this is a character who also still sleeps with a teddy bear). Trying it on. Later in the movie they have a little dinner in their dorm room with shitty paper plates and candles and she wears a 50s housewife apron and pearls. Boyle and Charles, especially, are quite extraordinarily beautiful young actors to look at, but that doesn't make them magically figured out as characters.

One of the best scenes early in the movie shows Eddy and Stuart with Alex backstage after a terrible college production of Oedipus Rex. Start tries to be nice, offering meaningless compliments, but Alex coos in happiness after Eddy trashes the production, eventually bursting out in anger at Stuart with: "This is art! The work is what's important here! It's better to be honest than nice, okay!?" (At which point Stuart delivers the epic line, "Well, fuck me for being nice," before leaving the theater and setting into motion scenes of more sexual frustration for Alex with Eddy.) There's just no way you can take "This is art!" seriously, although it's to the movie's credit that it lets the characters do so.

Eventually the intensity of various attractions between the three overflows into more complicated sexual situations: first in an interrupted scene with all of them at a lake away from campus, then in an affair with Alex and Stuart, then briefly with Alex and Eddy, and then in an actual consummated capital-T threesome, which, along with the open sexual language and more general wariness toward/need to point out The Gay at the time, was I guess the final reason Threesome was considered so racy.

I personally think that the sex scenes benefit from Thomas Newman's emotional score (I am a sucker for his atmospheric, jangly music), although for some that might contribute to a lack of intensity or immediacy. The best thing about the scenes is that ultimately they're not just about sex. The threesome marks the end of the characters' relationship, which makes some emotional sense. What doesn't make as much sense are the spaces left by the cutting the MPAA apparently demanded of scenes between Eddy and Stuart. The movie barely lets the two men interact sexually, when they finally do in the threesome at the end. It's a meaningful moment, but small, and quite different than what was apparently intended. I'd bet the shape of the movie, the story of the relationships, would have been better if more of the sex between the two men had stayed in. It also would have shaped the story more definitively as Eddy's. As a gay man's.

Some warnings: you will endure two to three montages in Threesome, depending on how you count, which could make you roll your eyes (or like the movie more, although people don't like to admit that). Baldwin is often greased down with distractingly bad hair product in a haircut that already tests us at times without it. There is a bag of groceries he carries in a crucial scene that is beyond Sitcom in the unrealistic and fussy placement of its contents. You may find it cheesy, what happens to the gnome. Boyle's character has a queen-size bed (has anyone in a dorm ever had a queen-sized bed?).

Sometimes there is tired writing in the voiceovers that is hard to swallow (again, young and pretentious -- they sound like a young man's writing them) but in general Charles' delivery of the narration is moving and thoughtful, as is his whole performance, which conveys confusion, betrayal, hope. He's not cool either: he's a vulnerable, real person. In lots of ways it really is the acting -- what these actors do with their dialogue as well as all their physical interaction -- that makes this movie.

The biggest problem with Threesome is that the movie is not very smart or fleshed out in its setting or about the specifics of college life, and it's this that validates the critical cries of Sitcom (or made it hard for them to remember this movie was about 20-year-olds). Boyle's character does very little -- no -- class-going or studying; the script provides only superficial cultural references/signifiers for these characters. This problem compromises one of the constructs of Alex's relationship with Eddy vs. Stuart: she wants Eddy for (among other things) his mind, for the intellectual connection, even as Stuart and she have mutual heat.

There is a sort of famous scene in which her character gets off while Stuart is going down on her at the same time that she is on the phone with Eddy, who is at her request reciting big words, including his last one before he hangs up, "concupiscence." As she comes, she throws the phone away, yelling, "Oh god, what does concupiscence mean?," which is either a fabulous filmic gesture, or way too much, depending on how you feel about this movie. The mind/body split these guys represent is an obvious construct that the movie's lack of smart college detail doesn't help sell. Nonetheless, it's also a split that is real fucking enough in this world where people often get what they want from others in all kinds of compartmentalized ways.

Eddy doesn't get what he wants, not really. He can never merge Alex and Stuart into the person he wants, nor can he have what he wants with Stuart, period. That's one reason I like the somewhat melancholy ending of Threesome. It has a ring of emotional truth, reflecting Eddy's more limited choices, but also the limitations of these interpersonal experiments, period: addictive, situational friendships where you try people on too hard and hearts are broken and there's nothing you can do to change how they'll go. Eddy's sad voiceover at the end, "Isn't it supposed to last?" is beautiful. (Again: Thomas Newman.) The movie does what a lot of mainstream American movies don't do, which is freight emotion with sex, and sex with emotion, and see where it goes.