**1/2 stars 108 minutes | Unrated
Opened: Friday, February 26, 1999
Directed by P.J. Castellaneta

Mitchell Anderson, Jennifer Tilly, Lori Petty, Seymour Cassel, Serena SCott Thomas, Cynda Williams, Paul Winfield, Susan Tyrell & Billy Wirth

Emsable relationship dramedy "Relax" starts weak, finishes strong

By Rob Blackwelder

After a deliriously funny title sequence that mocks the dorky and dated educational film style of the 1950s, "Relax...It's Just Sex" threatens for the next 30 minutes to become another clone of "Jeffrey," seemingly the touchstone for cross-over gay cinema.

The titles begin with a black-and white-sequence explaining, tongue-in-cheek, certain terms that might not be familiar to any heterosexuals in the audience:

"This is a lipstick lesbian," a monotoned narrator declares, then proceeds to explain the term while two women kiss. "See? that wasn't so bad," the narrator deadpans. Then it's, "This is a gym queen," as two oily, smooth and sculpted guys on the screen...


"We hope this has been informative. Enjoy the show!"

Then cue the none-too-subtle sex scene (with two guys doing a lot more than hugging), accompanied a considerably less clinical voice-over about the great spit or swallow debate, and I'm not talking toothpaste.

This transition is a hilarious commentary on mainstream acceptance of the gay lifestyles, but the next couple of reels can't keep up as "Relax" visits some shopworn gay dramedy territory while we get to know a frustrated playwright and commitment-phobe in denial (Mitchell Anderson), who spends an awful lot of time whining about the elusiveness of romance to his "fag hag" best friend (Jennifer Tilly).

Tilly is den mother to a troupe of thirty-ish cohorts who eventually turn this picture into a respectable ensemble piece after it stops tripping over queer cinema cliches and gets cozy with the characters -- even if it does at times feel like "Friends" with mathematically precise social and ethnic diversity.

There's Tilly, whose biological clock is ticking like a time bomb, and her Hispanic boyfriend with a serious case of wanderlust and only one airline ticket. There's the boyfriend's HIV-positive (somebody had to be) brother and his militant, black, AIDS-is-a-conspiracy boyfriend, an artist who paints Christ figures with IV needles substituting for the crown of thorns.

For the sake of comedic irony there's a irksomely blissful, conservative Christian, gay preppie couple. And lets not forget the lesbian bed death couple, whose relationship is broken up by a man.

Turns out that's by far the film's most interesting story. While it starts weak with a breakup scene in which the eight-year lovers (Serena Scott Thomas and Cynda Williams) come across more like strangers, the love triangle that develops as a result is full of complex and forceful emotion.

Williams ("One False Move") starts a relationship with sporty Lori Petty (finally playing a lesbian), who falls hard for her and becomes wildly insecure comparing herself to the beautiful and very femme ex.

Meanwhile Scott Thomas toys with a hetro relationship and, in a twist played for great laughs, takes heat from her socialite parents who had accepted their daughter's lifestyle for politically correct reasons and now worry aloud, "What are we going to say to our friends as PFLAG?"

Written and directed by P.J. Castellaneta ("Together Again"), "Relax..." struggles at times with poorly defined characters and a plot that lurches forward only when something traumatic or controversial happens (there's a shocking twist to a gay bashing episode that's likely to spark some interesting debate).

But thanks to the grand efforts of the entire cast to flesh out their characters, the acting bridges the movie's gay cliches, fits-and-starts story and occasional over-sincerity.

Petty is especially outstanding as the sporty dyke with a femininity complex. A performance like this in a mainstream film might garner Oscar buzz.

Also take note of veteran actor Paul Winfield ("The Terminator," "The Women of Brewster Place," "Mars Attacks!") in a revealing cameo as Anderson's, um, fairy godfather -- an older friend with an understanding shoulder and a head full of reassuring wisdom.


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