in Criterion Month

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

This is gonna be a quick one. I had to cram this movie into the back half of my day and then bust out this review without time to reflect. So here’s my hot take!

In film school, all I ever heard about sex, lies, and videotape is that it CHANGED EVERYTHING. More specifically how a low budget indie drama from a first-time filmmaker reshaped 90s cinema. Before SL&V indie films played in the shittiest of shithouse art theaters. If it was a genre picture maybe it would rot away on a shelf at Blockbuster. SL&V opened up studios and audiences to the idea that indie dramas could be international box office gold. Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and more could be the next Kings of Hollywood and in many ways were. The question is what was it about sex, lies, and videotape that grabbed viewers? How did a subdued drama about relationships become a hit? Let’s find out.

The story unfolds with four characters in their early to mid-thirties. John (Peter Gallagher) is a sleazy sex-obsessed lawyer who’s cheating on his wife. Ann (Andie MacDowell) is John’s disillusioned wife who has lost her passion for sex and intimacy. Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) is Ann’s free-spirited sister who’s having an affair with John. Last but not least, there’s the enigmatic Graham (James Spader) an old college friend who videotapes women talking about sex. These four troubled individuals share their insecurities with each other as dark secrets are uncovered and lives forever changed.

With a setup so simple you could imagine sex, lies, and videotape as a play. This is a film that’s 100% dialogue and 100% character. James Spader as Graham is the most absorbing with his bizarre collection of philosophies. Also, just the fact that he’s James Spader makes him automatically intimidating. Though I find my favorite performance in the movie to be Laura San Giacomo. As a child who used to watch Just Shoot Me! on Tuesday nights (because TV used to be terrible) I was surprised by Giacomo’s range. It’s a vulnerable performance.

The entire cast is great and it’s amazing that the film never feels stilted considering its minimalism. One can’t help but wonder how many of these conversations Steven Soderbergh had experienced in some way. Soderbergh does say there was a period of his life where he was mentally manipulative towards women, lying, and cheating. It takes a lot of guts to put those kinds of personal issues to the page, but he did, and it lends the film a true air of authenticity.

But again, why was it such a hit? As far as I can tell this was a time in American cinema where people weren’t talking about sex. Yet here it was as the focal point of a feature film. It seems quaint by today’s standards but it was a bold concept in 1989. An experiment, but a highly successful one as SL&V took home both the Palme d’Or, multiple prizes at Sundance, and an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. That’s what it takes. Stories that we all feel but aren’t always comfortable sharing. There’s a reason Soderbergh has stood the test of time. The man’s a trailblazer.

This is like Farrelly Brother’s funny.