At the beginning of Sexy Evil Genius, a trio of starkly-different strangers sit down over drinks in a largely-dead metropolitan bar, where they proceed to chat about good times and bad involving their mutual, mentally-unhinged ex-girlfriend, Nikki. They're not shy about it either, dishing out stories of obsession, love lost and how they were eventually shafted in one way or another. Steadily, and humorously, these characters take shape by revealing more about their failed relationships and life post-Nikki, all because their scheming ex covertly got them all together for ... some eventually-revealed purpose. That component works in Shawn Piller's crafty little comedy-mystery, a chatty never-leave-the-room lark that's more of a blend between stage performance and an extended skit than much of a movie. And it's entertaining in its own twisted little way, as long as it focuses on speculative gossip among spurned lovers and avoids revealing the actual purpose behind getting them all under the same roof.
This scenario could almost be misinterpreted as a dream in the mind of a sleeping TV geek, as if characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, LOST, and Battlestar Galactica have gathered together in a bizarro universe for the purpose of willfully defying their pre-established types. Seth Green plays a levelheaded, suit-wearing salesman, Zach; Michelle Tractenberg dons dark eyeliner and a sour demeanor as an alternative ex-addict, Miranda; a laid-back Harrold Perrineau muses about the soul and authenticity of jazz as Marvin; and, in a twist, Flatliners and Virus actor William Baldwin is a silver-tongued, morally-grey defense attorney, Bert. They're all drawn to their "sexy evil genius", Nikki, and Katee Sackhoff's fiery eyes and blown-back hair cleverly avoid the attributes that accentuate her Toaster-killin' fame-maker. Sure, these are some rather on-the-nose, one-dimensional characters, but that simplicity eventually serves a purpose once their conversations formulate some common grounds.
Witty dialogue -- perhaps a little too witty -- bounces between the assorted ex-lovers in Scott Lew's script, playing to their character types without really betraying their semi-authentic personalities. In terms of pure surface-level enjoyment, watching this banter can be fun long before the topic of their conversation arrives, long before Sexy Evil Genius really even has a purpose beyond the vague "Nikki's up to something ... again". It's amusing to see Zach fiddle with his olive-laden martini while wrapping his mind around his ex-girlfriend in a lesbian relationship, as is observing Marvin's reaction when he discovers what kind of music his bongo-banging ex really likes. The strengths in Lew's writing become obvious once Nikki's motivations, and the underlying plot developments, start to detract from that clever synergy; in a way, I almost wish that Nikki had stayed away until much, much later on. The dialogue's ability to put this mostly-invisible woman on a pedestal, reducing these sharp people to her thralls, are what held my attention.
Eventually, Sexy Evil Genius pulls the curtain back on the reason for Nikki's scheming -- involving deaths, stalkers, substance abuse, secrets from the past relationships, and a desire for revenge -- which presents a frustrating and unrecoverable kink in Shawn Piller's film. Nikki is a feisty mix of brilliance and insanity, and her feistiness is great to behold when filtered through the BSG veteran's edge, but the shady baggage her character brings to the table becomes too much for the story's quaint charisma to shoulder. Some of the film's best moments, such as the personalized ways Nikki greets her exes and identifies their beverages, are soon weakened once her overly-chaotic inclinations force black-comedy absurdity into the mix. Mind you, the performances maintain the same pulse as they do in the beginning, allowing the characters to amusingly wrap around the situation as it grows out of control; they're all in top form, straight-faced and frazzled, as they adjust to the scenario. There's just way too much dark, inane drama.
The main thing keeping Sexy Evil Genius from blowing out of control is the confinement of its one-set location, creating an almost literal stage effect -- a faint Hitchcockian ode that's better at grounding the plot that enhancing suspense. Outside of colorful flashbacks manipulated by distorted blues and erratic lens flares, almost everything takes place within plain, public view at the heart of the bar; a few privacy-required scenes shuffle over into the bathroom. This becomes important as the "danger" mounts among the group's later inebriated conversations, and it's one of the reasons why Shane Pillar's film ultimately sustains a meager amount of interest through its hectic climaxes. Without that novelty, without the ability to watch this sarcastic play resolve its story threads and motivations in a single spot, it would've appeared far too indulgent as the skeletons in Nikki's closet come tumbling out in a precarious jumble. Like this, at least there's a glint of appeal in seeing the evil genius' scheme come to fruition among her admirers.
Video and Audio:
Imagine sitting in your favorite dimly-lit bar for an hour and a half, a non-smoking bar, and you've essentially got the visual temp for 90% of Sexy Evil Genius. The 1.78:1-framed DVD from Lionsgate embraces the photography strengths, though: it captures the translucent brilliance in a glass of absinthe, gracefully presents the pop of blue in Nikki's straight-laced attire, and allows the details in darker corners of the room to stay visible. What's more, the scant rays of light shining among the bar grace the contours of faces and garments with reputable clarity, and the handful of lighter scenes that are available -- outdoor sequences and bright-blue flashbacks -- capture as much detail as they can. It's a standard multi-camera setup similar to a sitcom, but it achieves the desired tone rather well.
Talking at length about the 5-channel Dolby Digital track would involve a lot of discussion about how the different vocal registries of the actors were properly handled, so let's keep this short and simple. The dialogue remains front-focused, clear, and dynamic enough to achieve the film's desired effects, while there's next-to-no surround effects to add dimension to what's going on -- outside of an echo in the bathroom and the sound of a jukebox in the distance. It gets the job done. English and Spanish subs re available.
Audio Commentary with Shawn Piller, Seth Green, and Harrold Perrineau:
If your definition of a successful commentary lies in technical, per-scene info learned, then you're probably not going to chalk this margarita-fueled track up as much of a success. However, this is an exceptionally entertaining, down-to-earth audio accompaniment, and it proves something very clearly: that those responsible for making this movie had a blast doing so, and felt legitimately passionate about what they were doing. Green and Pillar consistently tell stories (with occasional, enthusiastic interjections from Perrineau) about the diligence that went into making the film, usually having nothing to do with the actual scene playing; you're lucky if the content focuses on a specific actor or actress on-screen. They will, however, discuss the rapidity of the shooting schedule and line memorization, lay out some humorous stories laced with insights on production decisions (Was that real champagne? Whose pool was that? Kim Novac?), and precisely how all the main actors got involved. Give it a go.
Also available is the warm, effective mini-documentary Jujitsu-ing Reality (16:45, 16x9), about writer Scott Lew's struggles with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Sexy Evil Genius is worth a watch for the sardonic dialogue that bounces between a cluster of old flames who share the same certifiably-insane, beautiful mastermind of an ex, delivered with charisma and fine comedic timing from a group of veteran TV and film actors passionate about the project. You'll have to tolerate a developing "plot" that gets more ridiculous as the conversations deepen, which drastically weakening the sarcastic theatricality filling the one-location setup. It's those individual performances and the way they navigate Scott Mew's clever dialogue that makes it worth a Rental, where there's enough situational hi-jinks and tack-sharp dialogue to get something out of it.