In John McNaughton's spastic black comedy Speaking Of Sex, James Spader and Lara Flynn Boyle memorably inhabit a sturdy comic type whose existence can probably be traced back to the birth of psychoanalysis: the headshrinkers who are far crazier than any of their patients. Spader's hopelessly depressed depression specialist has Paul Giamatti's fidgety body language and hunched-over frame. He's a man profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin, so it's a special torment that he has to spend much of the film listening to others describe him in the throes of sexual passion.
Spader stars as a deeply troubled shrink who barely seems capable of dressing and feeding himself, let alone peering deep into other tormented psyches. When he lurches into a sordid elevator fling with unhappily married wife and prospective client Melora Walters, Spader's life unravels rapidly. Nutso marriage counselor Lara Flynn Boyle encourages Walters to sue Spader with the help of hotshot attorney Catherine O'Hara, while Spader enlists the services of Bill Murray, who plays a variation on the ethically challenged lawyer he played in Wild Things, also helmed by McNaughton. Here, the director adroitly captures the way talking about sex can turn even responsible adults into giggling pre-adolescents.
If Sex had been released in 2001 as planned, it'd be a lot easier to read it as a sly commentary on the Bill Clinton impeachment, another tempest in a teapot where the mild sexual shenanigans of a man taking advantage of a position of power was blown up into a colossal scandal. These days, it's much harder to discern a satirical subtext to the scatological silliness, especially when McNaughton indulges in cheesy flourishes like a clattering screwball climax, sped-up à la The Benny Hill Show. Still, comedy geeks will get a thrill from watching relaxed old pros Murray and O'Hara square off against each other, and McNaughton's deadpan take on the material yields some big laughs in spite of the botched ending. Sex is one long Playboy party joke of a movie, but at least the joke is funny.
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