Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #6 Casual Sex? (1988)
Welcome to the latest installment of Control Nathan Rabin 4.0—Payola with Honor, the column where I give kind-hearted philanthropists who make a one-time one hundred dollar pledge to this here website's Patreon account an opportunity to choose a movie I must watch, then write about. Since I’ve introduced the feature, page-views have gone down and I’ve steadily shed patrons but thanks to this column I’ve been able to improve my monthly Patreon total all the same, so if you are thinking about pledging to this particular column, I would appreciate the holy living fuck out of it. Unless, of course, you disapprove of salty language (full disclosure: so do I. Only real pieces of shit feel the need to resort to profanity) in which case I’m dang glad whenever a kind-hearted soul opts in on this here feature.
The previous five entries in the column, Miami Connection, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Pass Thru, The Dark Backward and W.E, were all movies very much on my radar that I had given serious thought to writing about for my various columns, primarily Sub-Cult and My World of Flops. That is not, however the case with the sixth entry, the 1988 Lea Thompson/Victoria Jackson vehicle Casual Sex?
As I have documented here, my primary motivation for watching movies as a young man was a ferocious need to look at naked boobs. But it went beyond that. I also wanted to see naked butts as well. Ideally, I wanted to see naked boobs and naked butts in various steamy, sexual tableaus. When I watched a movie I wanted graphic nudity. I wanted adult situations. I wanted suggestive dialogue. I wanted the whole shebang.
Yet my intense need to look at naked boobs and butts and intense adolescent obsession with all things sexual somehow never convinced me to watch this particularly featherweight slab of Reagan-era sexual anxiety, nor did my enduring fascination with a pre-superstardom Andrew “Dice” Clay, who essentially does his Dice Man shtick as The Vin Man, a New Jersey goombah with a big, yearning heart underneath his flashy exterior.
Why has it taken me this long to see Casual Sex? I suppose the title has something to do with it. It’s as if the movie can’t figure whether its name is Casual Sex or not so it’s hedging. Maybe it’s Casual Sex? A Talking Cat!?! seemed to suffer from the same confusion, but at least it was loud about it.
Movies don’t get much more inconsequential than Casual Sex? but on the surface at least it seems to have a few distinctions. First and foremost, it is a theatrically released studio comedy from the 1980s that’s about sex from an explicitly female viewpoint.
More impressively and surprisingly, it does not shame its sexually assertive, aggressive protagonist for her needs or the way she goes about fulfilling them. True, Stacy (Lea Thompson) does refer to herself as a "much too promiscuous slam-hound" at one point and monogamy and marriage are ultimately reaffirmed at the end, but to its credit Casual Sex? has a refreshingly non-judgmental attitude towards its heroine’s active libido.
Casual Sex? is based on a musical play that ran at the Groundlings Theater in the mid-1980s. The film flaunts its theatrical origins. It opens with leads Stacy (Thompson) and best friend Mellissa (Victoria Jackson) dressed in all black on a bare stage addressing the audience directly about their sexual histories.
Stacy is a proud libertine who boasts of her cavalier past, “I remember when it was actually fun to say, “Wow, that felt really great. What’s your name again?” Mellissa, meanwhile, at least has the Christian, All-American decency to view sex through an appropriate prism of shame, fear and guilt.
At its tartest, Casual Sex? feels like a warm up for Sex & the City. Alas, the role of Stacy calls for the brassy theatricality of a Carrie Bradshaw or Samantha when Thompson is a hopeless Charlotte.
Stacy’s quippy accounts of her various lovers have a decidedly Carrie Bradshaw feel, whether she’s salaciously hailing the bedroom performance of a brute whose “lovemaking was like his art: primitive but passionate!” or salaciously joking of a comedian lover, “His timing was even better…horizontally!”
Yes, Stacy loved getting her fuck on and taking various gentleman callers to what poets and artists and minstrels refer to as the “Bone Zone” but then something happened. That something, friends, was AIDS.
Not to be outdone, the Vin Man, Clay’s character, tries to impress the ladies by saying that even if they’ve scoped out his muscle-bound body they still have more excitement in store on account of he has a “giant new monument going up, baby!”
From the lascivious way in which he delivers these words, he’s clearly talking about a long overdue tribute to Susan B. Anthony or possibly James Baldwin. Alternately, he’s talking about his penis and getting an erection. Actually, with the benefit of context, it’s pretty clear he was making a crude double entendre and that the "monument" in question is his trouser salami. He just has a colorful, and earthy, way of expressing himself.
AIDS shuts down Stacy’s one woman sexual revolution. She no longer sees sex as a fun way to get to know someone or an acceptable way to pass time before dinner. Like seemingly everyone in the 1980s, she now sees sex largely through the prism of AIDS, disease and death. So she decides to go celibate. For Mellissa, celibacy isn't a choice: it’s a way of life until these two AIDS-fearing friends decide to go to an exercise spa to look for Mr. Right.
Casual Sex? is a romantic comedy with the audacity to ask, “What’s the deal with sex, huh? With AIDS and whatnot? It’s crazy!”
There’s a theory that no good movies get made in Hawaii because once a film crew gets to Hawaii they’re more interested in having fun than in making a compelling movie. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but there’s an element of truth to it. I suspect the same is true of movies set at spas, resorts and island travel destinations. Crews are so busy enjoying themselves that the movie becomes an afterthought.
Travel paradises similarly tend to lack conflict. This isn’t always true. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a good, conflict-filled movie set at a vacation destination but it’s the exception that proves the rule.
In Casual Sex?, Stacy falls hopelessly for Nick (Stephen Shellen), a Fabio-looking motherfucker and resort employee who dreams of being a Bruce Springsteen-like rocker. In movies like these, hair and physique are destiny. We’re conditioned to see anyone with this kind of romance novel model physique and lustrous mane of man-hair as an asshole and a cheater so I was pleasantly surprised when the character turns out to be a deluded weirdo who just happens to look like he should be on the cover of Soap Opera Hunk monthly.
Stacy invites the struggling would-be rocker to move in with her and immediately regrets the decision when he turns out to be nice, and cute, but otherwise living in his own world, as evidenced by his hilariously heartbreaking final words to her: “I am going to have more fans than Elvis! And I won’t even be dead. Think about it!”
Mellissa has flirtations and romantic disasters of her own, and after a would-be fling with a psychiatrist goes horribly awry, she seems ready to give up on love and sex, and quite possibly all human endeavor altogether.
It seems insane for me to write this in 2018 but I believe in telling the truth no matter what so I’m going to straight up say it: Casual Sex? isn’t much of a movie but it’s nearly redeemed by the appealing presences of Andrew “Dice” Clay and Victoria Jackson.
Crazy, huh? These days Victoria Jackson is known for the strident manner in which she expresses her Evangelical Christianity and far right wing political beliefs rather than her acting or her comedy but she brings a vulnerability to the role of Mellissa, a naked yearning for acceptance, love and validation that informs every word, every gesture, every pained expression.
Clay’s performance is similarly defined by an unexpected vulnerability. There’s a lovely moment early in the film, for example, where Stacy very nicely and politely tells the Vin Man goodnight and goodbye after a resort-engineered date and he poignantly tries to save face after she shuts the door on him by very extensively and extravagantly pretending to be the one rejecting her romantic gestures, even if no one is watching.
The Vin Man is essentially The Dice Man if, under the Dice Man’s brash exterior lie the heart and soul of a good man who just happens to go about trying to achieve his goals and aims the wrong way.
A Dice Man with heart and soul, who is capable of growth and introspection and learning from his mistakes is not really the Dice Man at all, really. It’s the Dice Man lite, which in this case happens to be infinitely more charming and appealing than the uncensored, unfiltered version.
It’s fascinating to me that the “Vin Man” persona is more or less identical to that of Clay’s “Dice Man” persona, minus much of the profanity, misogyny and free-floating misanthropy. Yet in the concert film Dice Rules and the Joel Silver produced action-comedy vehicle The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Clay’s Vinnie Barbarino-gone-bad shtick is depicted as the brash, irresistible bravado of the ultimate cool guy while here that routine comes off instead as the desperate, pathetic overcompensating of a scared little man-child.
Casual Sex? is a curious little trifle that opens with pastel pink credits and Buster Poindexter’s “Hot Hot Hot” and somehow manages to maintain that level of 80sness for 87 relatively diverting if eminently forgettable minutes. It’s a movie about female sexuality that ends with its empowered but wised-up lead married to a nice, cleaned up version of the Dice Man, a character revered and reviled as the embodiment of crude, adolescent misogyny. That would seem weirder and more counter-intuitive if Clay’s disarming performance here didn't suggest that the Vin Man is closer to who the actor/comedian actually is, while the Dice Man remains a role he’s blessed and cursed to have to not only play but live until his dying day.
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