“Denial” could be money in the bank to a distributor able to convince the public that this sexy, frequently hilarious pic is more than an uncensored sitcom. Thanks to gag-heavy script, frankly adult situations and a cameo from a suave Jason Alexander — with hair, no less! — pic initially plays like adult tube fare. But helmer Adam Rifkin adds enough edge and originality to make it a potential click with theater auds. Marketeers will have to win femmes over to pic’s slightly male-skewed view.
Tale begins with otherwise congenial L.A. dinner party broken up by the only unattached eater, runty novelist Art Witz (Alexander), when he claims that couples live in a permanent state of titular you-know-what, their days filled with lies and half-truths, thanks to the basic unworkability of monogamous relationships. He hits a nerve, and the pairs fall out over Art’s cynical argument.
Each, as it happens, has its own particular sore spot. Young lawyer Joel (Jonathan Silverman) is a married good guy who channels his sideways urges into relatively anonymous “Oriental” massage, while his med student wife, Sophie (Leah Lail, who comes across as a charming blend of Meg Ryan and Drew Barrymore) , is more seriously distracted by her Rex Morgan–type prof. Model couple Isaac and Claudia (good-lookers Ryan Alosio and Amy Yasbeck) seem more solid, but that’s only because they’ve made a pact to hide their rather impressive list of infidelities from each other. “In six years of happy marriage,” Isaac tells salesgirls and such, “I’ve never looked at another woman — until now!”
Other duo is the most problematic, with both Sam (Patrick Dempsey) and Sammie (Christine Taylor) getting cool feet as they prepare to get married. A high-end chef for a tony catering company, Sam finds he can’t quite shake his thing for pornography, and its elaborate rituals, while failing to meet his very pregnant fiancee’s sexual needs. This part of the story reps weakest segs, since the two personalities are least well drawn, and the culmination of their particular trial — involving a private eye and his lurid bait — leads to a slightly forced, “Love Boat”–type happy ending.
On the other hand, scripter-helmer Rifkin (who made several cheap genre flicks before writing “Mousehunt” and “Small Soldiers” for DreamWorks) adds enough left-field humor to keep “Denial” from getting stale. Even when dialogue approaches obviousness, as when Isaac and Joel, at a rowdy hockey game, discuss differing male and female views of penetration, Rifkin always throws in a twist — in this case, by having nearby femme fans blow raspberries at their theory.
Helmer also gives himself pic’s juiciest part: Joel’s bumptious brother Reuben is a menacingly geeky ne’er-do-well with a penchant for morbidly obese women and for picking fights with anyone who stares at them. Joel’s law practice , in fact, appears to be dominated by pro bono work on his bro’s assault cases. (“He stood up,” begins one of Reuben’s typical self-defense explanations, “so I hit him as hard as I could.”)
A few more bits like those would have moved action further away from conventional territory, but frank pic (which has little nudity) is probably as wacky as mainstream fare gets.
In any case, helmer’s main goal is to demonstrate a kind of couplehood held together by mendacity and rationalization, without passing judgment on participants. Jaundiced yet oddly upbeat mood is helped by zesty thesping, slick lensing, whip-smart cutting and found-music score made primarily of scrappy old R&B tunes, with heavy emphasis on Howlin’ Wolf.
Pic tested poorly in Vegas, then brought down the house in Seattle, with youthful fest aud missing lines amidst screams of laughter.