X WITHOUT GUILT

Threesome has the look, and the all-important soundtrack, of another entry in the Generation X youth-movie sweepstakes, along the lines of Reality Bites. It's a comedy set on a college campus, and it has just three characters of any significance--dormmates Eddy (Josh Charles), Stuart (Stephen Baldwin) and Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle), all in their early 20s.

The hip trappings are present, but the film isn't really an attempt at generational dissection. Except for the characters' relative openness about their sexual orientation, there's nothing specifically postboomer about the story.

This is good. It isn't easy to sum up a generation when you're trying to, and it's even harder when you're trying to do it in order to sell the image for profit. Because it isn't trying, Threesome, though plainly a commercial movie, comes far closer to doing so than did Reality Bites. It's a tight, coherent, interesting little picture that's really about something.

Like Reality Bites, it centers on a triangle. Narrator Eddy, who is struggling with the probability that he's gay, finds himself attracted to the lecherous party animal Stuart. Stuart is desperately in lust with Alex, who was made their third roomie because of her masculine-sounding name. She can get a little tingle from Stuart, strictly from her nerve endings, but she's far more turned on by the quiet, intellectual Eddy.

This leads the three of them into one of those hyperintense, sexually frustrated friendships that one often sees among college kids. It trembles on the edge of becoming a full-fledged m‚nage … trois, and part of the film's tension rises from whether the three of them will go all the way together. But the situation isn't merely a teasing gimmick; it's quite believable.

Boyle, best known for her work in TV's Twin Peaks, is perfect for her part--she's a true beauty, but she has an accessible quality. She looks and acts like someone you might actually encounter somewhere other than a movie screen. Charles, the beatnik wanna-be in Dead Poets Society, is adequate in his reserved role. But Baldwin, the homeliest of his clan and maybe the most engaging, is the movie's engine. He makes no apologies for his character's blunt crudity, and he makes us laugh by letting Stuart's little-boy id hang out.

I don't mean to suggest that this makes for a profound or edifying movie. But it's refreshing to see a film of this sort that isn't trying to bullshit or flatter its audience, that isn't trying to give its viewers the warm fuzzies. There's no effort to prettify, for instance, Stuart's ugly, misogynistic sex talk, and the snotty exclusivity borne of being in a circle as closed as a threesome is also acknowledged. It's nice, furthermore, to have a film by and about and aimed at people in their 20s that isn't larded with references to stupid TV shows.

Writer-director Andrew Fleming keeps things moving, with the exception of a few montages of the threesome horsing around that are straight out of a kitschy, 60s youth comedy. Toward the end, the story starts to wear itself out a bit. Like most similar relationships in real life, there's no really satisfactory way to resolve it, and it obviously can't last; it begins to feel a bit like beating a dead horse. But Fleming wraps the film up efficiently before it has time to get on our nerves.

Fleming, who's young (though he does have one other feature credit, a repellent 1988 horror picture titled Bad Dreams), has Eddy refer at one point to Freud--unfashionable though he may be"--as "the Big Guy." While the nod to the much-maligned genius is appreciated, Fleming doesn't seem to notice the Freudian underpinnings in his own script. Eddy and Stuart are quickly sketched but realistic, convincing characters, while Alex is a collection of quirks.

Her pursuit of Eddy is comic, and her hysteria when she's rejected is likewise not taken seriously. Her sexuality is shallow--she becomes orgasmic when Eddy recites "big words" (if I had met someone who was polysyllabically arousable in college, my romantic troubles would have been over). In other words, she's a foil, a device by which the real subject--the sexual tension between the two guys--is made palatable to a mainstream audience.

Anyone who supposes, by the way, that the widespread societal homophobia of which the gay community complains is an exaggeration should see this film with a large, college-age audience and hear the squeamish spluttering that accompanies the couple of scenes in which a gay kiss is threatened. During the sequence in which Eddy is inadvertently fixed up with a shy gay kid in the dorm (Alexis Arquette), the guy in the row ahead of me panicked, and began to babble--I'm quoting directly--Beat him up and take his money! Throw him out the window!" Freud, unfashionable though he may be, would suggest an explanation.

 
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