The Reeler


January 17, 2008


Lichtenstein's toothless sexual satire isn't nearly as subversive as it thinks

Teeth is a comedy about vagina dentata, so if the idea of a carniverous orifice chomping off dicks by the dozen strikes you as inherently hilarious, don't let me stop you. But Teeth is also, har har, a remarkably toothless satire about gynophobia, sexist males and other easy targets. In other words: How brave you are, writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein, for condemning rape. Objects of scathing satire: men, portrayed here as uniformly horny but scared of genuine female sexual assertiveness (and mostly potential rapists to boot -- the late Andrea Dworkin would have loved this film). Add to this the strikingly original assertion that abstinence-only advocates are repressed hypocrites, then pat yourself on the back for being progressive.

Should one attempt to make a film that satirizes our current sexual climate -- call it the Early Period Britney Spears paradox, where sexiness sells but actual sex is frowned upon -- I'd recommend not mimicking the pacing of Todd Haynes's Safe, tonally possibly the heaviest movie of all time. Yet Lichtenstein isn't content to take the Election route to high school comedy (fast and vicious), favoring lugubrious establishing shots in the wake of a chemical plant and decisions so obvious they have to be a joke. The instant wavering abstinence advocate Dawn (Jess Weixler) manages to masturbate successfully, rain falls from the heavens. Earnest Dawn's got major problems beyond a new move to generic suburbia, where the other horny high schoolers mock her; every time she thinks of sex, images of a cheesy '50s monster movie pop into her mind. Teeth plays like a de-subtextualized example of same, with Dawn's vagina as the beast from 20,000 fathoms and loud screaming strings every time the killer vadge attacks.

Teeth follows a depressingly monotonous pattern: Dawn gets aroused, makes a tentative move towards coming to terms with her vagina and is taken advantage of by a guy. Tobey (Hale Appleman) is the cute dude who tries to rape her when she won't move fast enough; his penis ends up floating in the make-out spot's lake. Creepy gynecologist Dr. Godfrey (Josh Pais) tries to examine Dawn when she isn't entirely comfortable; exit hand. Later, friend Ryan (Ashley Springer) finally takes care of her cumbersome virginity in an atmosphere of trust and infatuation; sadly, when Ryan turns out (in a shocking turn of events) to be another untrustworthy male, the vagina fights back.

Lichtenstein is a Bennington alum, and his scenario has the queasy feel of an earnest liberal arts undergrad aiming for the satirical stars while trying to synthesize a massive amount of knowledge. Teeth aims for the quintessential high-/low- brow mix to demonstrate that the creators are both earthily alive and extensively educated: dick jokes mix with mythological allusions and a heavy-handed Adam & Eve pre-lapsarian sequence that all but puts subtitles on the screen to explain the archetypal framework. Weixler is a pretty but bland actress; for a movie about feminine empowerment, you'd think casting someone who could actually carry the film would have been a priority.

Instead, my favorite character by far is Dawn's troglodyte half-brother Brad (John Hensley), who knocks out one of Dawn's courters with the words, "You're out of your league, pussy boy. Get off my property." The all-American nightmare boy skulking in a death-metal obsessed room, Brad inevitably turns out to be as obsessed with Dawn's vagina as everyone else. Until that turning point, he's the only person in the film who's neither a clueless male (Dawn's dad gets a pass, ineffectual but nice) nor Dawn herself. Like Scott Caan or Nicky Katt, he brings a welcome blast of rudeness to a film that's not nearly as subversive as it thinks.

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