A promising concept is gradually run into the ground in "Sex and Death 101."

A promising concept is gradually run into the ground in “Sex and Death 101,” a would-be black comedy that lacks both laughs and gravity. Racy subject matter, the marquee appeal of the rarely seen Winona Ryder, and the occasional protrusion of plastic breasts guarantee some aud interest, but bet-hedging blandness and weak production values make this anodyne sex romp best suited to cable and vidstore crypts.

Aussie up-and-comer Simon Baker has almost enough charm to carry the day, but even that wears thin when he’s asked to provide the emotional center of a tale that is more silly than sinful.

Baker plays fast-food potentate Roderick Blank –handsome, successful (although we never see him working) and a killer with the ladies. Yet he’s initially ready to give up the bachelor life to wed one of many interchangeable blonds the pic presents as the face of standard-issue desire. Trouble comes when he receives an odd email containing the names of all the women he has ever slept with — or will ever sleep with.

One can see how such knowledge might add confusion to already chilled feet, and Rod soon ankles the wedding in favor of easy pickings. Against the advice of a trusted assistant (Mindy Cohn, doing well with her feisty-lesbian shtick), he rushes headlong into his prefab pornucopia. As presented by writer-director Daniel Waters, who scripted the influential “Heathers,” the sexual situations are utterly lacking in heat or suspense — which may be the point for a guy knowing exactly who will next butter his buns, but it makes chilly viewing for the rest of us.

Pic is routine in all other aspects. Surprisingly, respected lenser Daryn Okada’s images are barely above tube level, with sleek sitcom the dominant design mode here. Only contrast comes from white-on-white segs repping some kind of sci-fi purgatory where Rod goes to figure out what’s happening to him. These are arresting, but use of a single set and similar jokes quickly becomes repetitive.

More enervating is the monotonous dialogue, which has the same brand of writerly locutions spilling from almost every mouth. Since Roderick and his pals are simply stock guy characters, and most of the women — including Leslie Bibb as a veterinarian (with no practice) whom Roddy falls in love with — are more like models than people, the satire feels both sour and unrooted. Pic is also riddled with implausibilities, such as the notion that our horny hero would hang onto the email list for dear life but never look at the last name on it.

That handle, as viewers will guess, has to be Death Nell, a goth-clad gal notoriously knocking men unconscious across the country. Fortunately, this is Ryder’s part, and the former Heather — despite a nonsensical explanation about what turned her into an avenging angel — manages to invest it with some needed humanity. In their climactic scene together, the leads evidence a chemistry elsewhere missing from the proceedings.

Playing it safe throughout, Waters ensures the conventional music, staging, and phallo-centric humor can all add up to a happy ending that congratulates viewers for skirting the margins of sex and death while never even getting close to the abyss.

Sex and Death 101

Production

An Arclight Films presentation of an Avenue Pictures Prods., Sandbar Pictures production, in association with S and D Prods. (International sales: Arclight Films, Los Angeles.) Produced by Cary Brokaw, Lizzie Friedman, Greg Little. Executive producer, Aaron Craig Geller. Co-producer, Jerry P. Jacobs. Directed, written by Daniel Waters.

Crew

Camera (color), Daryn Okada; editor, Trudy Ship; music, Rolfe Kent; production designer, John Larena; art director, Helen Harwell; set decorator, Peggy Paola; costume designer, Julia Caston; sound (Dolby) Richard Taylor; assistant director, Eric A. Pot; casting, Andrea Stone. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), June 17, 2007. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Roderick Blank - Simon Baker Gilian/Nell - Winona Ryder Miranda - Leslie Bibb Trixie - Mindy Cohn Fiona - Julie Bowen Hope Hartwell - Frances Fisher
With: Tanc Sade, Patton Oswalt, Cindy Picket, Dash Mihok, Neil Flynn, Thom Bishops, Sophie Monk, Corinne Reilly, Marshall Bell, Rob Benedict, Natassia Malthe, Polyanna McIntosh.

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