[originally published in 7 Days, on August 9, 1989]
Steven Soderbergh wrote the screenplay for sex, lies, and videotape during an eight-day drive from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles, and the movie he made from it retains the hurtling urgency of its genesis. This is true despite the fact that it’s not a fast-moving film by any means. Its principal mode of action is conversation—people talking about sex, candor, responsibility, fidelity, contentment—and there’s no attempt to jazz things up with camera stunting. A little more limpidness in the cinematography, a little more attention to the piquant charms of place, and we might take it for an hommage to Eric Rohmer. Yet sex, lies, and videotape is an American original, beating a supple, nervy tattoo on the funny bone of contemporary values.
Small wonder that its 26-year-old director took home the Palme d’Ôr for best film at the latest Cannes festival. The movie is a chamber piece for four players, though almost never are more than two of them together at a given time. John (Peter Gallagher) is a Baton Rouge yuppie, eternal frat man, and junior partner in a law firm at age 30. His wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), having given up thoughts of a career, spends her drifty days agonizing over global dilemmas (e.g., where to put the world’s mounting supply of garbage) and parrying her analyst’s efforts to determine why she and John don’t touch anymore. She has a younger sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), a barmaid and compulsive free spirit whose lifelong rivalry with Ann has led her into an affair with John—a liaison of which Ann remains unaware.