(I understand critical tradition – or: law – does not dictate opening one’s review with a parenthetical tangent but hey, here we are. And the esteemed critic Wesley Morris once said on his ex-Grantland podcast how he sometimes enjoyed feeling out his warmth or resistance to a movie by seeing if he could recall the names of a movie’s main characters without visiting IMDb. In that spirit, I tried, really, really tried, to remember the names of the main characters played by Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson in “Casual Sex?” without visiting IMDb. But, I could not. I just.........could not. We continue.)
There is a scene in Geneviève Robert’s “Casual Sex?” when Stacy (Lea Thompson), unabashed celebrator of the titular activity (sans question mark), visits a doctor’s office to confirm her health. She wants to confirm her health because of the headline on the Time Magazine in which her face is buried while she sits in the doctor’s waiting room. It is the famous Time Magazine cover of the mid-80s that some of you may recall, referring to “the growing threat” of AIDS, a legitimate real world concern. But before Stacy could conceivably have had time to finish the article, she is already tossing the magazine away when her doctor appears to advise her that everything is okay. She doesn't have AIDS. Phew! In other words, this national crisis relates only to her, no one else, and matters only in how it relates to her sex life, which she now plans to rein in to find Mr. Right because apparently even with AIDS swirling about all it takes to be happy is Mr. Right.
The film at least opens on a promising note, on a blackened stage, a nod to its theatrical roots, where Stacy and her best friend for life Melissa (Victoria Jackson) discuss the eruption of the AIDS crisis, and their feelings toward it, and then their feelings toward promiscuous sex. It’s an intriguing moment. After all, you hear the movie’s title, you see its poster, and you immediately think of a maddeningly puerile romp. But to hear them in this moment, looking right at the camera, right at us, and the confessional tone it strikes suggest a film suggests a film willing to mix it up with mature themes.
Quickly that’s lost, however, when the answer to promiscuity is apparently to visit Oasis, a health resort spa, like if this was “Couples Retreat” but you went to get coupled off. To reach Oasis, Stacy and Melissa excitedly pile into Stacy’s car as the movie’s unofficial Buster Poindexter theme song wallops away on the soundtrack, only to have the car – uh oh! – go belly up, prompting a transition from the car to the bus. Here, readers, is where we glimpse the kind of comedy that will follow – spit takes, health drinks that DON'T TASTE GOOD, falling into pools at inopportune moments, and smoke pouring from a car’s engine. This is monotonously derivative stuff. If “Casual Sex?” wants to abandon any pretense of seriousness to be funny, fine, but then, like, you know, be funny, and this movie mainly traffics in diluted sitcom material that only the sub-hacks would have thought amusing in moments of 4 AM and we-haven’t-written-anything desperation.
Melissa finds Mr. Right right away, Jamie (Jerry Levine), a spa employee. If there are rules and regs about employees dating customers, this is never addressed, but whatever. What is more interesting is how obvious it is from their first introduction that these two are meant to be together, and that it all boils down to self-defeating Melissa finding the wherewithal to know it. Stacy, on the other hand, cycles through a couple guys, from a devastatingly handsome idiot to The Vin Man, played by an obligatorily obnoxious yet strangely sweet Andrew Dice Clay. And if the first guy is revealed to be an idiot, maybe the second guy will not be as idiotic as he seems, while in all this hoopla to couple off, the societal consternation about AIDS will be forgotten.
That is the most damning detail about “Casual Sex?”, how it initially yearns to proffer commentary and then forgets all about it amidst the sun, water and health drinks of Oasis. That name, in fact, Oasis becomes more emblematic than even the movie itself could have imagined. Here the answer to a health crisis is not to confront it directly, but to escape to a non-existent paradise, where the health crisis hardly even seems to exist, where every worry the characters initially cop to becomes a mirage, where if at first you don’t succeed at monogamy, you don’t have to worry about trying again.