SUBMISSION IMPOSSIBLE

The most erotic moments in movies, as in life, tend to have a spontaneous, uncontrived quality. This may be utterly illusory--intense thought and care may have gone into crafting the abrupt kiss or smoldering stare or well-turned piquant phrase that seems so urgently and inexplicably sexy. But at their best, the seams of movie erotica don't show.

Exit to Eden, one of several dirty books written by Anne (The Vampire Lestat) Rice under pseudonyms, is all contrivance. The plot is a love story between a dominatrix and one of her slaves, set on an island called Eden, a sort of Club Med for filthy-rich S and M enthusiasts. It's for the sake of that setting, however, that the book really exists--Rice wanted to fantasize a place in which total submersion into bondage and dominant-submissive role-playing could take place in safety, without any fear of real injury, illness, legal problems, intrusive mundanity or the wrecking of a personal relationship.

This, clearly, is the desire to have and eat one's cake; still, Exit to Eden isn't an entirely bad book. Rice certainly has the descriptive skills of a first-rate pornographer--her quick-reading, appropriately breathless prose is undeniably potent. The trouble is just that S and M, though it makes a picturesque fantasy, seems to many of us pretty tedious and unrewarding as a reality. That's why I had some slight hope for the film version of Exit, directed by sitcom king Garry Marshall. Marshall's task was, presumably for commercial reasons, to turn the story into a comedy. A pair of funny, physically un-Olympian undercover cops (Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Aykroyd) are added to the story, supposedly in search of a couple of diamond smugglers (Iman and Stuart Wilson), but actually so that there will be people of conventional, repressed sexual tastes around to react to the sexual hobbyists of Eden, to gently make fun of them and also to be intrigued by them.

This approach sounds sensible and promising, but the film is terrible. It soon becomes clear that Marshall was brought into the project not only, or even mainly, to inject humor into the story. His real purpose is to extract everything from the story that might upset the mainstream audience. He's been hired to take the teeth out of S and M, just as he took every whiff of terror or sordidness out of the lives of Hollywood hookers in his vile, inexplicably well-liked Pretty Woman.

Thus the scary, oppressive element which is necessary to the punch of Rice's book is removed. So, predictably, are all the homoerotic scenes, and the bondage and sex scenes between the lovers, played by Dana Delany and Paul Mercurio, are eye-rollingly square and tame, which is exactly how the filmmakers wanted them. It's quite an insult to the sexual creativity of middlebrow America to think that this lame, halfhearted, unconvincing vision is what Hollywood imagines the multiplex audience will find hot (and how sad for us if we do). Besides, unlike the rancid but well-crafted Pretty Woman, Exit to Eden is shapeless and wretchedly paced, and it isn't even good to look at (visually, its quality is that of a seminude Carnival Cruise Line ad). The "thriller" content is childish, and the actors get nowhere. Aykroyd has nothing to do and no good lines to say. The Australian Mercurio's voice and coy facial expressions grate as they did not in his charming star turn in Strictly Ballroom.

Most of the film's publicity has centered on Delany, who by playing the dominatrix is said to be shedding her wholesome image. I always thought she gave off an avid, potentially kinky vibe in her earlier roles, but here, ironically, she makes very little impression at all, and the romance between her and Mercurio is utterly flat.

The film is stolen by O'Donnell, who seems to steal every picture she's in. She gets most of the film's few good jokes (most of these, sad to say, are in the trailer), and she uses her stunning timing to make the most of the dull ones. O'Donnell is the most magnetic woman in the film--Iman included--because she's onto the sexiness of humor. Also, in spite of her Junoesque form, she looks bloody good in that ridiculous leather finery.

 
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