NY Mirror

Instead of Not About Nightingales, the Tennessee Williams play should really be called Is About Three Hours.

The most anxiety-making theater development of recent years is that the dailies seem to rave uncontrollably about any half-assed show with a gay subject. Flounce some homosexuals across a stage, add the obligatory "My boyfriend is valiantly fighting AIDS, but I'm negative" routine, and you've automatically got an orgasming critic who's clearly mistaken a noble theme for a good play. Well, isn't this what we always fought for? No! Raves about tepid shit make it unnecessary for anyone to do their best work, surely paving the way for the end of gay culture. Reviewers, please don't try so hard to be with it or we'll soon be without it!

In praising a new gay film I've stumbled onto, I'll at least try to be a bit balanced. It's Relax . . . It's Just Sex, which follows a bunch of gay couples (and occasional straight ones) on the bumpy way to romantic nirvana. The heartfelt flick by P.J. Castellaneta covers a lot of expected bases, serves up some easy resolutions, and is sort of like David Searching crossed with It's My Party via Thirtysomething, but I still give it an unexpectedly aroused thumbs up. Between to-cringe-for banalities, it's infused with warmth, a likable cast, and laugh-out-loud dialogue about relationships. ("You know how lesbians are. They're like Catholics or Saturday Night Live. They go on forever, no matter how bad it gets.") I hope this review doesn't kill gay culture.

Feeling quite alive, I nabbed a phoner with Jennifer Tilly, who exudes her usual woozy zing as Relax's straight girl, especially when getting impregnated on a kitchen counter. Tilly told me she had her doubts about doing another low-budget number. "I didn't want to get typecast as the indie queen," she said. "But here was a great part, and I was whining because I thought 'I'm not gonna get well lit!' " And despite the production's inherent risks, she admits that playing a fag hag was not all that much of a stretch.

The gamble paid off. Tilly said the quickly assembled movie got a great response at Sundance, even from Mormons and heterosexual couples. "There were little old ladies dabbing tears away," she said. "One of them told me and Lori Petty, 'Thank you for letting us know how you people are.' Like it's a bizarre aboriginal tribe! My ski instructor told me, 'I didn't realize gays were just people like me.' At this point, I skied faster."

While I had her on the phone, Tilly addressed some of her other career slaloms— like her understandably peeved expression when her Bullets Over Broadway costar Dianne Wiest was announced as the Oscar winner in '94. "Well, I didn't want to look joyful!" she said, laughing. "Actually, most people think I looked serene. I was happy for Dianne and the movie, if a little vulnerable. But she's gracious and I knew she'd refer to me in her speech, and I'd get another shot at being on national TV. When she called me her 'esteemed colleague,' I put that serene expression on my face!"

Next, Tilly's de-woozing and going for even more esteem in a thriller called Do Not Disturb. "I'll be a lovely, graciously aging woman with three gray hairs," she said. Or two, actually; a techie pulled out one of those hairs as Tilly shrieked, "But that's part of my character!"

Anxious for a second opinion on Relax— that's part of my character— I tracked down Lori Petty, who's terrific in the flick as a lesbian who's afraid she may be too butch for her new girlfriend (a problem I never seem to experience). "This movie's like Boyz N the Hood for gay people," Petty enthused. "It's not like Hollywood movies, which only have all these straight, white people falling in love. You know, 'But you were on top yesterday!' 'Well, I'm always on top!' " After which Tom Hanks inevitably replies, "But Meg!"

Like Tilly, Petty was thrilled by the movie's Sundance reception, but she says the overall experience was "like a press junket that never ended. It's unshaven Hollywood. If you're high maintenance like me and Jennifer, don't go! Every corner, it's like, 'Hi, Ben Affleck!' " Sounds good to me. Petty will next round a corner and turn up in Clubland, in which she's "the Madonna­ Courtney Love freak drug addict bitch rock-and-roll star. I'm the star of the Sunset Strip, but I'm also like the Antichrist. I fall off the stage and overdose on drugs. I gag, but I don't really vomit a lot." Oh, good— less is so much more.

Moving on to slightly more hygienic movie dish, Goodbye Lover— the Ellen DeGeneres vehicle whose delayed release I recently noted— is finally being foisted on the public next month, mercifully enough. And here's some more good news for Ellen: In the imminent EDtv, she gets a big laugh when her character says, "Believe me, I know about women!" Alas, the bad news for moviegoers of all sexes is that the treacly, fraudulent, trivializing The Other Sister is the feel-good mental retardation movie of the year. This one makes David and Lisa look like a documentary!

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