A mysterious blond stranger rides into town, stirs up a lot of dust, and changes a few lives. Is it Alan Ladd in Shane? No, it’s only James Spader in sex, lies, and videotape — simultaneously the sleeper hit of ’89 and a candidate for most overrated movie of the ’80s.
Which is not to say it’s bad; in fact, it’s compulsively watchable. But the rapturous reception it received seems due more to the audience’s hunger for a serious work than to anything intrinsic in the work itself. And sex, lies does resemble a serious work. Big issues are addressed (truth, impotence, real estate), the styles of earlier art house directors (especially Bergman) are liberally evoked, and the whole thing, despite its trendy title, avoids the sensational with an almost Bressonian austerity.
In fairness, young writer-director Steven Soderbergh does display a surprisingly sure hand with his actors (with the exception of Peter Gallagher, who plays the jerk-yuppie husband too broadly). The script is funny. And the deceptively unflashy visuals lose little on the small screen (although MacDowell’s celebrated blushing in one scene isn’t really visible on the tube).
Still, there’s a hermetic unreality to sex, lies that does it in. The characters — all profoundly silly people — could exist only in the imagination of a gifted artist who has yet to leave film school behind and graduate into life. You have to respect Soderbergh for attempting to do something cerebral in the age of Turner & Hooch, but his picture is, at heart, just a really good student film, no more, no less.