There’s a sort of unwritten rule in comedy: don’t be longer than 90-minutes. Sex and Death 101, at 116 minutes by itself and a little over two hours with previews, is clearly no comedy by that rule of thumb, but it still desperately wants you to chuckle at the problems of Roderick Blank (Simon Baker), a successful corporate type who is tan, pretty and blonde. His life is so great, he tells us, as he struts along a back-lot sidewalk, since he’s days away from marrying Another Young, Pretty Blonde (Julie Bowen), thus completing the Middle Class circle of life. But wait, his older, sassy—and gay!—secretary (Mindy Cohn) says: he has a strange email waiting for him. When she opens it, a list of 101 names appears, each being one among the many tramps stamped by Blank. And yet, Another Young, Pretty Blonde is only #29.
Daniel Waters confirms a minor fear the second he sets this rickety “Romantic Comedy” whirligig in motion: he’s trying way too hard. Consider the opening: a white room, camera slowly inching ’round in a 360-degree shot while poppy jazz plays—then stops. A new song starts, camera still crawling—then stops. A third song plays and now we see something in the wall shooting out envelopes—scene still acting like a slug going ’round the rosey—while Patton Oswalt (“Fred”) and Tanc Sade (“Beta”) comically fumble over each other.
It’s hard to imagine the same guy who once wrote what to do gently with a chainsaw can’t do much better than “I’m certain that some very interesting things will occur this evening. Your penis going into her vagina will not be one of them.” So says Alpha (Robert Wisdom), one of three “agents” for the deus ex machina device that randomly emails Roderick. It only goes further downhill when Oswalt, the official ambassador of edgy, counter-culture Onion cool (he even name-checks Gymkata), proclaims that if he were Roderick, he’d have sex. How? In a montage.
Four minutes later, cue the first of three montages. Each features Roderick sleepfucking his way through women of all ages (and one man), cursed by his infernal list of sure-fire sexings. His feminine foil, “Death Nell” (Winona Rider), stands for the stereotypical womyn who views all men as sex-crazed fiends that masturbate in the bushes while watching little girls. She hunts down these deviants—white rappers (“Master Bitchslap” is an awesome name though), pervy newsstand men, college frat boys—and puts them into a chemical coma while scrawling the walls with her poetry (i.e. “What men call breathing, I call suffocation.” Edgy!) She eventually spills her guts and relates a traumatic, rather disturbing past that seems infinitely more interesting than Roderick’s list.
The conflict eventually boils down to poor Roderick wanting a relationship, trying life without his magic sex list, and then realizing that that is much harder than being given a cheat sheet. Oh—and he’ll eventually have to meet up with “Nell.” But this concept of a Bro Romantic Comedy, or “Brom-Com,” is impossible to take seriously, even as Waters tries so hard to make Sex and Death commercially viable. There is nothing redeeming behind this juvenile plot concept beyond “having sex is hard, ya know.” Waters is more confused about his audience; both he and Ryder appear desperate to shake out an entertaining art-house hit, but none of the original Heathers gang seem capable of being culturally cool these days.
While Waters does shine at points—Bambi and Thumper, the lesbian sci-fi reality show doctors; an injured Roderick being essentially raped by 30 Catholic School girls who become chain-smoking hussies as they proceed conveyor belt style through a bus—he manages to opt out of relevant social satire, or even making something as kitsch-palpable as Demolition Man. Sex and Death is, instead, Waters’ desperate attempt to make Heathers 2: Winona Forever!
John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.