Every once in a while, a movie comes along that seems sure-fire in concept, but utterly fails in execution. 'Sex and Death 101' is just such a film, a genre-bending romantic comedy that's full of nifty ideas but nonetheless so poorly conceived it's about as sexy as a root canal. I can't remember the last time I had less fun watching a movie.
Written and directed by Daniel Waters ('Heathers,' 'Hudson Hawk'), 'Sex and Death 101' attempts to put a existential spin on the traditional sex comedy. Simon Baker stars as Roderick Blank (note the last name -- get it?), a womanizer who's about to marry his lovely fiancee (Andrea Bowen), until he receives a mysterious list detailing all of the sex partners he's had in his life -- as well as all of those he's ever going to have (a total which, not coincidentally, totals 101). That the list goes beyond his future wife is a fact not lost on Roderick, so he promptly dumps her and goes about searching for the remaining 72 women he hasn't yet bedded.
What follows is a dreadfully pretentious and downright ugly farce that hopes to be some sort of existential answer to all those old Warren Beatty lothario comedies of the '70s. It's like a new millennium version of 'Shampoo,' only without any astute perception or cultural significance. Waters attempts to nudge us out of our narcolepsy with some genuinely intriguing questions. If you already know that your going to bag your conquest, does it take away the thrill? As you near the end of your 101 lays, does your encroaching mortality ruin the fun? And what if the one true person you love isn't on the list? Unfortunately, the answers (when Waters even bothers to come up with them) are pedestrian, and far, far less intriguing than the questions.
Fatally, 'Sex and Death 101' doesn't have even much sexy, playful fun on its way to its painfully self-indulgent conclusion. Waters introduces a subplot involving Roderick's 101st conquest, Death Nell (Winona Ryder). Seriously, now, Death Knell!? Really!? Just the use of such a lame name telegraphs the conclusion, so by the time Roderick finally gets around to his "little death" (Freud's famous term for orgasm) the symbolism is so heavy-handed that even the wrap-around sequence of three white-clad heavenly men can't save 'Sex and Death 101.' Adding to the desperation, Waters tries to spice up the flick with plenty of gratuitous and vulgar humor (there is more T&A on display here than in the entire 'Porky's' franchise combined), but it never feels truly dirty or subversive.
An otherwise fine cast is left to flounder here thanks to the poor material. I've found Baker likable in many of his previous films, but he's playing such a shallow cad that his charm comes across merely as smugness. He also lacks the daring comedic timing really needed to turn such a jerk-off into something humorous -- this is the kind of guy you'd never want to spend two minutes with in real life, much less two hours. Ryder, looking rough around the edges, just seems happy to be working and delivers a phoned-in performance. Only Bowen manages to bring some genuine humanity to her character, but Waters writes part her so thinly that it's ultimately a thankless task.
If I can say anything positive about 'Sex and Death 101,' it is that Waters is at least ambitious. An attempt to take the standard, mushy romantic male lead and eviscerate him -- or at least dissect his corpse for a few darkly subversive laughs -- is a potentially promising one. But 'Sex and Death 101' just completely misses the mark. It's grating, uneven in tone, flatly directed and listlessly acted. Perhaps the 'Sex' in the title (as well as the promise of the post-'Heathers' reunion of Waters-Ryder) may entice some to give this a shot, but trust me, the experience is far closer to a slow, painful, 117-minute 'Death.'
'Sex and Death 101' is the latest Blu-ray release from Starz Home Entertainment, and given the sliding scale of quality of their past few releases, I wasn't sure what to expect. Although the film has a bit of a TV-movie look to it, and the transfer has a couple of problems, this is a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1) that's bright and appealing.
The source is spotless, with rich blacks and very sharp contrast across the entire grayscale. The clarity of the image really jumps out, with generally excellent detail and superior shadow delineation. Close-ups in particular are revealing and textured, but even wide shots are full of depth. Colors are also bold but not too saturated, with a clean veneer throughout. Fleshtones are also accurate.
Weak points to the presentation include some noticeable edge enhancement. The image is simply too tweaked, resulting in obvious halos on areas of sharp contrast -- and there are plenty in the film. I also noticed slight motion artifacts, such as jaggies, and some slight noise. 'Sex and Death 101' still looks appealing, it's just not perfect.
Starz offers uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround (at a full 48kHz/24-bit) and standard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (640kbps) options. The film's sound design is dull, however, so don't expect any sonic fireworks here.
Even for a comedy, 'Sex and Death 101' is surprisingly reserved with surround use. I noticed next to no discrete effects, even on the score and the use of a few songs on the soundtrack. This is a front heavy mix, if at least stereo separation is nicely done. Dynamic range is fairly hefty, though the subwoofer has little to do. Dialogue is cleanly recorded (even if some of the ADR is obvious), so I had no volume balance issues. 'Sex and Death 101' is perfectly listenable, but that's about it.
Extras on this Blu-ray of 'Sex and Death 101' match the DVD version, which is hitting stores day-and-date. It's a serviceable assortment of material, if hardly copious. (All supplements are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video, and I could find no subtitles.)
'Sex and Death 101' is a pretty awful "romantic comedy" that is neither romantic, nor funny. I didn't laugh, I wasn't moved, and I hated every last, insipid character in the movie. This Blu-ray release is a perfectly respectable presentation of a bad film, with good video and audio a couple of supplements. But I really wouldn't wish 'Sex and Death 101' on anybody, even as a rental.