Relax…It’s Just Sex: Castellaneta’s Romantic Comedy, Starring Jennifer Tilly

Very much au courant, P.J. Castellaneta’s Relax…It’s Just Sex is a romantic comedy for the 1990s, one that deals with the affairs and intrigues of the heart of a social clique composed of gays, lesbians and straights. Despite vibrantly funny dialogue, and terrific ensemble acting by the likes of Jennifer Tilly, Lori Petty and Mitchell Anderson (among others), more than simple cuts are necessary for the film to be seriously considered for theatrical display. Until then, sophomore effort by the talented Castellaneta, a lifestyle movie that touches on several timely issues, should play well the various gay and lesbian film festivals.

Gender and sexual orientation have become such dividing lines in our society that it’s rare to see a comedy that blends together so effortlessly the lifestyles of gays, lesbians and heteros. In this, and other, respects, Relax…It’s Just Sex deserves credit for attempting significant issues that concern the thirtysomething crowd, such as sex as physical pleasure, sex as an expression of love, sex as an avenue to new life, but also main transmitter of AIDS.

Using an original narrative structure, Castellaneta draws upon Schnitzler’s classic La Ronde in the intricate way he introduces his dozen fully fleshed characters. Often addressing the camera directly, a person begins to tell a story that involves another person, allowing the camera to switch back and forth between multiple locales in a natural, unobtrusive manner that links all of them in a closely-knit web.

Hilarious beginning, accompanied by a solemn yet ironic voice-over, depicts a “lipstick” lesbian couple and a “gym” gay couple, which demonstrate a friendly, “non-threatening” embrace. This is completely violated in the ensuing scene, which shows a steamy anal intercourse and oral sex, underlining the dilemma faced by central figure, Vincey (Anderson), whether to spit or to swallow. A smooth transition to fag hag Tara (Tilly), a gossipy but good-hearted mother hen, gives her the opportunity to discuss the philosophical and personality differences between the camp of the “swallowers” and that of the “spitters.”

Tara is busy preparing a Friday dinner party for her friends. Though sworn to secrecy, she can’t help but spill the beans about the latest news: HIV-Positive results of Javi (Eddie Garcia), brother of her longtime lover, Gus (Timothy Paul Perez). Predictably, in the first collective scene, a dozen friends voice their opinions about AIDS, led by a provocation from T.C. (Buzz Wagner), a black artist brought to the gathering as Vincey’s date, but quickly switching allegiance to Javi.

Just about any type is included in the congregation, though, in the context of the film, none feels schematic or contrived. Among the women, there’s Megan (Serena Scott Thomas) and her black lover, Sarina (One False Move’s Cynda Williams). The long-enduring couple is breaking up, when Megan is forced to confess that she’s having an affair with Sarina’s second cousin, Jered (Billy Wirth). Not wasting time is waiting-in-the-wings Robin (Petty), who offers Sarina the kind of love she never experienced with Megan.

Changing tones from the comic to the more serio, center piece is a violent gay-bashing attack on Vincey and Javi. When Vincey fights back and rapes his attacker in front of his comrades, group is sharply split and Vincey decides to take a long leave from them. Tara, however, continues to leave messages on Vincey’s machine and it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before reconciliation is achieved in the name of friendship, a value beautifully celebrated in the film’s coda.

Despite the merits of Relax, one can’t avoid but notice its messy structure and often unnecessary cuts from story to story and character to character. It’s not that the film is too rich in ideas or stories; what’s problematic is the manner in which the various episodes are linked and edited. To attain a cleaner, smoother narrative, picture should be sent back to the editing room, where cuts of two kinds should be conducted: Cuts within scenes and cuts of entire sub-scenes. For instance, there are too many reaction montages of the participants to the same event. For this comedy to exert its charm on its viewers, it needs to lose about 15 to 20 minutes.

That said, in most sequences, pacing is admirably brisk, without ever damaging the caustically-written dialogue or thesps’ delivery of their lines. Indeed, the entire ensemble rise to the occasion, with standout work from Tilly, as a classic fag hag, and the appealing Anderson, as a man tired of one-night stands.

Contribution of the vet cast members is strong, including Seymour Cassell and his reliably iconic presence. The brilliant Susan Tyrell, long absent from the screen, gives a show-stopping performance as Megan’s mother, terribly upset that her daughter is no longer lesbian. Equally impressive is Paul Winfield, as the witty Auntie Miriam, an elderly gentleman who relates in a hilarious monologue how he’s often mistaken as straight and subsequently courted by younger boys.