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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2005 03:17 pm

Sex sells, again

Once, Hollywood dared to break new ground

The surprise success of Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin may revive the sex-comedy genre, but we are still a long way from its glory days. Today the genre is dominated by trash teen flicks, such as the American Pie trilogy, and moronic adult comedies aimed at a juvenile mentality, such as Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999). The less insulting examples rely too heavily on gimmicks to be taken seriously. 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002) expects us to believe that Josh Hartnett would take up a vow of celibacy after his relationship with his girlfriend turns sour. Not only does he avoid sex for 40 days, but everything else is off-limits. His choice is never adequately explained, and it seems to exist only to create situations in which he is tempted to succumb to his desires. Does he learn anything from his test? Maybe he did, but I certainly didn’t. Filmmakers haven’t really taken sex seriously since the 1960s and ’70s. Back when Hollywood had the daring to break new ground, it shattered many taboos along the way. Perhaps the next step is too scary, so instead they resort to crass jokes.

I may be harder to please, but I can’t think of one truly great sex comedy since the almost-forgotten Shampoo (1975), starring Warren Beatty as a womanizing hairdresser. This period farce about sexual politics at the dawn of the Nixon era featured Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, and Lee Grant (who won an Oscar for her portrayal) as the women in his life. Beatty co-wrote the brilliantly witty script with Robert Towne (Chinatown), and Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude) directed.

Hollywood has flirted with sex throughout its history, but it shied away from any direct contact until the 1960s. The Apartment (1960) may be the first full-blown sex comedy to be showered with accolades, and it is a perfect example of why these films often do not hold up. As more barriers break down, the shock value wears off. Now, the idea of company cretins’ using an apartment for their trysts is hardly earth-shattering. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), in contrast, is thought to be dated, but it really isn’t. Paul Mazursky’s classic is one of very few films to perceptively examine the effects of changing mores on the middle class. Maybe some truly daring filmmakers will look to this golden age for real inspiration and skip the pie jokes.

DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (Sept. 20): The Longest Yard and Mindhunters.

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