Synopsis: Who says having sex isn’t a laughing matter? Certainly not the ready-for-anything Stacy (Lea Thompson) or her somewhat repressed friend Melissa (Victoria Jackson).
Determined to develop a meaningful relationship with a man who’s not afraid to make a commitment, the girls take a vacation at a plush health resort. With high hopes, Stacy and Melissa embark on their quest to track down the Perfect Man. But unfortunately, the men they encounter seem to wilt at the thought of anything more than… Casual Sex. The result is a hilariously perceptive comedy that offers a lighter look at what happens in the dark.
Casual Sex? 7.0
eyelights: Lea Thompson. Andrew Clay’s performance. its mature look at heterosexual relationships.
eyesores: Victoria Jackson’s performance. its dated look and sound. its low budget production quality.
“This is kind of embarrassing to admit, but I remember when it was actually fun to say, “WOW, that really felt great! What’s your name again?””
The late ’80s were a challenge for the sexually active: AIDS cast a shadow over everyone, being relatively new, still mysterious and very, very deadly. A budding teenager then, my memories of those years are filled with horrific news accounts and paranoid delusions about AIDS. That and the crack cocaine epidemic – but at least, I guess, you could quit that.
You couldn’t quit AIDS.
Naturally this trickled into pop culture: We lost our first celebrities to AIDS in those years, much to everyone’s shock, stand up comedians tried to make light of it (often confusing it as a homosexual’s disease, as many did back then), and a safe sex movement was growing that would eventually lead to an abstinence one. And, of course, it found its way into cinema.
‘Casual Sex?’ is a 1988 sex comedy starring Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson, and co-starring Andrew Dice Clay. It was based on a play by Wendy Goldman and Judy Toll which was originally produced at the Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles. It tackles the growing anxiety of a post-AIDS culture, when people were starting to realize that unprotected sex was dangerous.
The picture finds Stacy (Thompson) celibate for over 10 months after a promiscuous past and itching to find a healthy single man. She coaxes her best friend, Melissa (Jackson), into vacationing at the Oasis health spa, where she believes she could find such a specimen. And so they head out for a week of sexy, healthy fun, where they meet and mingle with a variety of men.
What’s interesting about ‘Casual Sex?’ is that it was clearly made by women for women: The director, writers and stars are women, and it looks at women’s sex lives from a female perspective, with men coming off as the caricatures that women see daily. For all intents and purposes, it’s a precursor to funny and mature shows like ‘Sex and the City’, and it is one of the first.
I remember seeing this for the first time in the late ’90s, being struck by how candid it was about female sexuality – perhaps naive by today’s standards, but quite frank for its time. I had never seen anything like it before: I loved that it took us into the minds of women, something that mostly remained a secret. I showed it to a friend of mine and he dug it too.
There was one scene, in particular, that was striking: after Stacy and Melissa leave the party one evening, they and another woman sit around a small coffee table and discuss what they like and miss most about sex. It’s rudimentary stuff by today’s standards, but I highly doubt that a lot of movies had women discuss their orgasms before this picture did.
Naturally, being a comedy, there has to be a bit of romance in ‘Casual Sex?’, and I really like the direction this one took, too, giving Stacy the perfect man, only for her to realize that what she truly sought lay elsewhere, and Melissa being unable to let her guard down with someone who is really interested in her. It wasn’t all flowers and roses and Hollywood endings.
Even if they both get their own happy endings.
‘Casual Sex?’ isn’t an especially sexy or raunchy film, but it have a memorable slice of nudity when Stacy and Melissa go to the Oasis’ nude beach. My eyes couldn’t help but linger on Thompson, who I’ve crushed on ever since ‘Back to the Future‘. Le sigh. And, yes, for those so inclined, there is balance struck here, with a couple of rather buff men walking in the nude.
No, not full frontal. Sorry. It was 1988 after all.
Sadly, the cast isn’t particularly convincing. As lovely as Thompson is, her delivery is soft here; she doesn’t feel real. Heck, even a moment where she’s supposed to be coming back from a run doesn’t look real; she obviously has no momentum. Oh well, I still love her. The same cannot be said for Jackson, who’s an even worse actress than Sarah Silverman, like a bull in a china shop.
The strongest performance -and biggest surprise- in the picture comes from Andrew Dice Clay. His sexist stand-up routines had put me off, and I’d consequently dismissed him. But here he shows a knack not just for being purposely unfunny but also for nuanced emotions: his Vinny is a macho airhead from Jersey who thinks he’s God’s gift to women – until he’s given a book on how to be sensitive.
(Or pretend to be, in this case.)
After this, Vinny starts to consider things that he never had before, and you see the character try harder and eventually grow. Clay actually managed to bridge the gap respectably well. There’s this terrific moment when he walks Stacy to her room and she politely brushes him off, and Vinny shows signs of vulnerability – but then convinces himself that all went according to plan.
Clay pulled it off. Call me impressed.
Vinny is one of the many stereotypes being spoofed in his picture. One of my favourite sequences is when Stacy takes Nick, Stacy’s “perfect” man (a flawless Stephen Shellen), to her room and she barely has to broach the topic of safe sex, because he’s understanding and takes care of everything. And then we see the reverse with Melissa having a nightmare of getting all the STIs at once.
Even though she’s only had three partners.
Thing is, that’s what makes ‘Casual Sex?’ so enjoyable: it’s the way it plays with clichés and bends our expectations, thereby allowing for a larger palette than one’s average Hollywood picture. It also helps to educate in a subtle way, by normalizing talk and behaviour that would otherwise (at least at the time) have been considered too taboo. For that alone it’s commendable.
But, all in all, ‘Casual Sex?’ is a product of its time. It’s hard to get beyond all the late-’80s-isms, which are such an eyesores. But it’s such an uncommonly mature look at relationships when you consider its vintage that it’s hard to completely knock it. I’d love to see a modern revamp of it; it deserves to be seen, but most people couldn’t stomach how cheesy it looks and feels now.
Well, for what it’s worth, I still love ‘Casual Sex?’.
Date of viewing: March 1, 2016