“Investigating Sex,” the latest head-scratcher from the unpredictable and frequently audacious Alan Rudolph, left a packed closing-night crowd noticeably unsatisfied at the pic’s bow, in the vet helmer’s hometown of Seattle. His attempt to recreate the libertine climate of bohemian Europe in the late 1920s is only fitfully engaging, despite the presence of a large, well-tuned ensemble and a lot of loose talk about you-know-what. Actually, all that palaver proves more wearisome than arousing, and “Sex” is likely to find its case closed before the probing begins.
The helmer based his dialogue-heavy pic on conversations initiated by Parisian surrealists in the pre-Depression era. That crowd is embodied in this Berlin-shot costumer by Dermot Mulroney, impressive as the stern Edgar, who insists that his avant-garde pals discuss modern sexuality in clinical detail, but without forays into such “deviations” as homosexuality, humor, or open sentimentality.
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His circle includes a self-confident filmmaker (Jeremy Davies), a self-absorbed painter (Alan Cumming), a German artist (Til Schweiger) and a British student who is also Edgar’s rival for the affections of a French beauty (Julie Delpy), who is, in turn, turned off by Edgar’s seeming preference for the mythical succubus over any flesh-and-blood woman.
To record what he’s sure will be brilliant exchanges, Edgar hires two young stenographers, the worldly Zoe (Robin Tunney) and the virginal Alice (Neve Campbell), with the proviso that they don’t contribute to the discourse. Their switch into sexy evening attire, however, assures that they will influence the course of events — as will rich businessman (Nick Nolte) and his wife of uncertain origins (Tuesday Weld, moving between Russian and Brooklyn accents), whose villa is the home to these verbal experiments.
Some witty badinage transpires — clever enough that Rudolph had to go to Europe to find funding — but the mere fact that the participants worry about over-intellectualizing sex doesn’t exactly inoculate Rudolph from doing exactly that. The language never goes deep enough to hit existential pay dirt (the whole succubus theme is woefully underexamined), and the onscreen lovemaking is pretty tame stuff.
To compensate, the helmer plays almost everything as farce. He uses Cumming’s moans, winces and pouts as punch lines, frequently pointing to the character’s latent gayness, as if that should be amusing in itself. In fairness, the highly physical Brit is resourceful enough to make this work, even if it dispels all heat between the characters.
Campbell is good as the coltish secretary, who warms to Edgar’s heroic views of male sexuality, but she’s asked to turn her demureness on and off like a light switch. Tunney’s earthy confidence shines in this flapper-era setting, but most of the other players don’t get the chance to give their characters much shading. Delpy shows unexpected humor as the romantically conflicted pawn, although how she got in this position isn’t made remotely clear. Good use of music and lighting creates tension unsustained by the story.
Although considerable attention has been paid to costumes and other details, the period feel isn’t terribly strong — a crucial element when auds are asked to recognize the frank talk of genitals and orgasms as being shocking for its time. There are small anachronisms in the language, and one doozy, when Mulroney’s character goes ’60s by asking Nolte’s if he was “putting us on” with a shaggy-donkey story about his bestial adolescence. But whether set in 1929 or 2001, “Investigating Sex” already feels too dated, and far too timid, to spark any real exploration of mind or body.