The Opposite of Sex

“I don’t have a heart of gold, and I don’t grow one later,” says Dedee Truitt (Christina Ricci), the protagonist of one of the year’s best movies, The Opposite of Sex. Like all smart villains, Dedee knows the best way to get us on her side is to talk to us via narration; we’re flattered that this liar and manipulator tells the truth to us and us alone. Think of Dedee as a Jerry Springer-era, teenage-vixen version of Richard III, and you’ll have one key to the movie, but not the only one.

The Opposite of Sex is a comedy about one volatile catalyst — Dedee — dropping into a group of dissimilar people and forcing them to discover their similarities. Of course, that isn’t Dedee’s aim; her focus is on money, and Christina Ricci’s somewhat two-dimensional style works for this single-minded tramp. Dedee has no depths to reveal — seduction and swindling are all there is to her. Yet something interesting happens. Even though Dedee keeps narrating, the movie’s emphasis shifts from her to the people whose lives she affects — something like the better scenes in To Die For, when we got to see the human cost of Nicole Kidman’s entertaining manipulations, their effect on the hapless kids she was seducing.

At the beginning, after Dedee’s rotten stepfather has died, she leaves home and lands on the doorstep of her half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan), a gentle gay teacher living with the handsome goofball Matt (Ivan Sergei). Dedee wastes no time seducing Matt and running away with him (along with a big chunk of Bill’s money). Bill takes off after them, accompanied by his sort-of sister-in-law — Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), whose brother, now dead of AIDS, was once Bill’s lover. As if Bill didn’t have enough to worry about, a sleazy little teen hipster (Johnny Galecki) is accusing Bill of molesting him.

As the movie goes on, the meaning of the title comes into focus. Bill and Lucia are essentially decent but also sexless in their own ways; Bill seems too nice and, well, vanilla to have much carnal appetite (that’s why the accusation against him is such a joke), while Lucia is a brittle, cynical woman who rolls her eyes at all the sexual Musical Chairs the characters play. These two form the moral spine of a movie that seems, at first glance, to be cheerfully amoral; even those who reject Dedee can hook into Bill and Lucia. Donovan, as always, has an easy and intelligent presence — we have faith in Bill’s ability to pull himself out of this mess. Kudrow gives the stand-out performance, proving she has more in her portfolio than Phoebe, Ursula, and Michele; Lucia isn’t a New Age ditz but a tightly wound, witty fellow teacher — the first truly adult woman Kudrow has played.

There are other twists and complications, which I’ll let you discover. The movie is a comedy, so everything clicks together nicely at the end, with all the characters where we want them to be. The Opposite of Sex is the directing debut of Don Roos, who previously wrote Single White Female and Boys on the Side; he starts with Dedee’s nastiness and then takes us deeper into human connections and motivations. In a way, Dedee emerges as something of a heroine: Her lies and betrayals force the more decent characters out of their ruts and into the world. They find themselves, while Dedee ends up in a shabby motel room with a gun-waving teen Jesus freak. The surprise of The Opposite of Sex is how compassionate it turns out to be, despite the acidic remarks of its narrator; it even has sympathy for Dedee herself, who wields all this manipulative power, yet is essentially powerless to be anything other than what she is.

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