The hope, I guess, was that phenom Patsy Kensit would light up every corner of Twenty-One, Don Boyd's saga of how a spirited girl in modern-day London learns to juggle sex, love, and satisfaction. The reality is far different. Though Kensit's wattage is high - she's brilliantly blonde and beautiful from every angle imaginable - the ugly truth about her character, Katie, is that she shines only on herself.
To some extent, the film's weakness is formal. Boyd has structured Twenty-One as a series of monologues about relationships, infidelity, maturation, family, and love, all delivered directly at the camera by Kensit's pouty, lovely face. To those lectures he has added illustrative flashbacks to trace Katie's progress through a succession of affairs. This is the same technique Ken Russell chose for Whore, and it has some of the same exhilarating intimacy. But whereas Whore basks in its own lurid confessional excesses, Twenty-One wallows in the most cynical form of self-pity. Katie's guiding principle in her affairs seems to be the pursuit of the saddest possible arrangement - whether she's pointlessly knocking pelvises with Jack (Patrick Ryecart), a married cad she can't stand, or musing sorrowfully over her doomed relationship with Bobby (Rufus Sewell), an aimless Scottish junkie. There's plenty of sex, but it's all prerequisite for tragedy, and what kind of lesson does that teach about the possibility of healthy promiscuity?
Boyd's movie has been hotly anticipated for its voyeurism; who wouldn't jump at the socially authorized opportunity to see a confident young woman discuss (and perform) a wide variety of sexual acts baldly and lustily? Well, jump back. Adventurers in prurience will find nothing here to satisfy them - there's only one lovemaking scene (between Jack and Katie in a Venice hotel) that even approximates erotica, and it's marred by a grating slapstick sequence of Jack undressing.
Audiences may clamor away for a stretch of unfettered hedonism, but Boyd dips his ladle into the foul waters of Emotional Satisfaction. The two men in Katie's life who offer love without sexual strings attached - her car-salesman father (Jack Shepherd) and a Jamaican club singer named Baldie (Maynard Eziashi) who becomes her best friend - aren't given strong enough scenes to develop any real importance. Sure, Katie helps her father unload a sports car on a haughty young aristocrat, and sure, she acts as a roadie for Baldie and playfully skinny-dips with him in the moonlight. She even sleeps with both men in sweet, asexual scenes. But emotional rescue seems less important than packing her figure into the right body-glove dress, and then using what she has to get just what she wants. Every love scene is as sour and hollow as Katie's flip disclaimer: "Sex and love have come in different packages."
Maybe the very idea of structuring a film around a willful woman's open discussion of her sex life deserves commendation. But I come to bury Don Boyd, not to praise him. For a project with a feminist veneer, Twenty-One does everything it can to rot out the core of its female characters. Katie's mother, of whom she speaks only occasionally, and with calculated disdain, is frustrated and disloyal. And Katie's best friend, a dough-faced gossip named Francesca, does three things - prattle, chatter, and yammer. Almost certainly, you'll want to knock her head off with a two-by-four after her first appearance.
The film begins with a wedding (Jack's) and ends with a funeral (Bobby's), and between those two sacred ceremonies, Katie supposedly matures into the kind of woman who will grab the reins of her life. But that's just the party line. What Boyd shows instead is her solipsism (which she seems to have inherited from her father), her confusion, and her own considerable cruelty. Kensit never quite loses her appeal, but it's a struggle. Boyd, who has not directed since the mid-Seventies, seems to have forgotten completely how to hold a story together. Characters pass in and out of the plot. Conversations are pointless. Neighboring scenes have nothing in common save for their proximity.
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Late in the film, when Boyd accelerates the plot, he fuels his endeavor with irresponsible doses of depressing circumstance. Bobby's heroin addiction worsens. Katie's parents plunge into dysfunction. Baldie fears that immigration authorities will appear to ship him back to Jamaica. Despair sits atop Twenty-One as uncomfortably as a bad hat. Even on these terms, the movie could have worked, maybe as a downbeat version of She's Gotta Have It, but any goodwill the film musters collapses under the combined weight of its despondence. When Katie ends up in New York with a stiff upper lip, convalescing from her true love's overdose while she remembers that she's young and beautiful, Boyd almost seems as if he's setting up a sequel. Maybe next time he should order out for the script.
Directed by Don Boyd; written by Zoe Heller and Don Boyd; with Patsy Kensit, Jack Shepherd, Patrick Ryecart, Maynard Eziashi, Rufus Sewell, Sophie Thompson, Julian Firth, Tip Tipping, and Tyger Kahn.
Opens Friday at the Miracle Center 10, 3301 Coral Way; call 442-2299.