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If people in the ’50s were as puritanical about sex as contemporary movies suggest, the human race would have expired by now. As the millennium approaches, we seem to take comfort in contrasting our supposedly unbridled erotic mores with the fabled restraint of that decorous decade, conveniently overlooking the forthright sex appeal of ’50s pop icons (Elvis, Monroe, Brando, Novak, Dean) and the relative sterility of our own (Melrose Place’s Kens and Barbies, Baywatch’s silicone bimbos). True, in those days, you couldn’t rent pornography at the corner video store, participate in cybersex, or watch lesbians on the evening news groping each other at a White House dinner. Then, sex was not a spectator sport but something to be covertly experienced, all the more pleasurable for its aura of transgression.

In Intimate Relations, a satirical comedy-drama set in 1954 in a provincial English town, writer-director Philip Goodhew skewers midcentury sexual hypocrisy, but his targets are all sitting ducks and dead horses. His screenplay is based on newspaper accounts about a young male lodger in Dorset who became involved with his landlady and her daughter, both of whom were found murdered in a woodland glade. In the movie’s press materials, Goodhew says, “I wanted to use the story to say something about certain English attitudes….There must have been a lot of boiling cauldrons around then.”

Perhaps, but those pots have grown awfully tepid by 1997. Goodhew’s observations about British sexual and emotional repression must be true, because we’ve encountered them so often before in English films, plays, and novels. If there’s anything fresh to say about this topic, he hasn’t found it.

After an establishing shot of a working-class home, nudgingly underscored by Rosemary Clooney’s vintage hit “Come On-A My House,” we’re introduced to the Beasley family. Fiftyish Marjorie (Julie Walters), an Eisenhower-era Martha Stewart, rules the roost. This model housewife’s dowdy domesticity—tight finger-waves, windowpane spectacles, frumpy housedresses, starched curtains, oven-fresh lemon puffs—marks her as a victim of carnal desuetude. (Should anyone be sufficiently obtuse to miss the point, Goodhew sprinkles her dialogue with prissy maxims about moral rectitude: “I’d rather be dead than brazen” and “A lady’s reputation is all she has.”) Marjorie’s geezer husband Stanley (Matthew Walker), a machine operator who lost a leg in World War I, has been denied her sexual favors for six years and banished to a shabby guest room. The rest of the household consists of Joyce (Laura Sadler), a 13-year-old daughter, and a boxer dog, Princess Margaret, played by Max, the film’s most vivacious performer.

Marjorie decides to take a lodger and is thrilled when young, handsome Harold Guppy (Rupert Graves) responds to her advert. No sooner is this passive, troubled orphan in residence than Marjorie sets about seducing him. Once she experiences sexual fulfillment, she becomes a woman possessed. Young Joyce senses that something peculiar is going on and attempts to blackmail her out-of-control mum into including her in the festivities. Harold makes several desperate attempts to escape Marjorie’s clutches, but she stalks him and drags him back to her lair. Ultimately, Harold’s fragile psyche explodes in a pastoral blood bath.

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For a few reels, Goodhew’s sneering tone—a weak solution of Joe Orton—is nastily amusing, eliciting cheap guffaws from shots of Stanley polishing the shoe at the end of his artificial limb and Marjorie’s kitschy taste in interior decoration. But the characters are so shallowly and contemptuously drawn that one soon loses interest in them, especially in the climactic scenes, which require us to empathize with Marjorie’s barren existence (“I missed the point of everything”) and Harold’s emotional traumas. Walters, the adorable star of Educating Rita, and Graves (Maurice, The Madness of King George) are first-rate performers, but Goodhew’s snide, skin-deep writing doesn’t give them much to work with.

Intimate Relations left me with the mental equivalent of a bad taste in my mouth. It’s been 26 years since I’ve seen a movie—Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, to be precise, in which Clint Eastwood is imprisoned and tortured by a group of sex-crazed women—so filled with fear and loathing of female sexuality. As a daily Howard Stern listener, I’m hardly the person to grandstand for feminism. But the misogyny that infests every frame of this movie has less to do with social satire than with the filmmaker’s own psychosexual hang-ups.

Cinematic debacles as pitiful as writer-director Raymond DeFelitta’s Cafe Society, a soapy, noirish melodrama set in ’50s Manhattan nightclubs, should be treated with the mute tact appropriate when elderly persons break wind. But because it has been inexplicably praised by the New York Times and might entice moviegoers seeking an East Coast counterpart of the vastly superior L.A. Confidential, a warning must be reluctantly posted.

DeFelitta’s screenplay is based on the once-notorious Mickey Jelke prostitution case. A 24-year-old trust-fund baby in line to inherit a margarine manufacturing fortune, Jelke (Frank Whaley) spends his nights carousing in New York watering holes. At El Casbah, he meets young, beautiful Pat Ward (Lara Flynn Boyle), a publicity-seeking social climber, and soon becomes her lover. Jack Kale (Peter Gallagher), an undercover vice cop infiltrating cafe society to ferret out vice rings, discovers that Pat is really a hard-luck Polish girl from Avenue D but promises not to disclose her background to Mickey. When Jelke’s snobbish mother spots Pat as a fraud, she cuts off his cash flow. The penniless Mickey convinces Pat to support him as a prostitute, promising to marry her as soon as he obtains his inheritance, but when he pimpishly begins manhandling her, the distraught hooker reveals her activities to Jack and attempts suicide. Jack, in turn, brings this information to the assistant district attorney, who realizes that busting a socially prominent figure like Jelke would be politically useful in an election year. Mickey’s relatively minor infractions are exaggerated by the cops and tabloid press—he truthfully tells his lawyer, “I’m no vice lord. I’m a pervert”—leaving Jack with the moral dilemma of deciding whether to go along with Jelke’s prosecution or expose how the case has been exploited by ambitious cops and politicians.

There’s an interestingly sordid movie lurking in this real-life material, but DeFelitta hasn’t a clue about how to extract it. His pinch-penny budget denies him sufficient resources to recreate the glittering world of El Morocco and 21. Underlit and cheesy-looking, Cafe Society consists almost entirely of close-ups and two-shots because there wasn’t enough money to construct full-scale nightclub interiors. Although set in 1952, the film fails to exude a hint of authentic period ambience; the best DeFelitta can come up with is a gaggle of uncomfortable-looking extras, dressed in what appear to be prom gowns, brandishing cigarette holders and cocktail glasses. Photographic murals of the Manhattan skyline glimpsed from interiors are a particularly laughable economy, and intermittent montages featuring coy orgiasts, jewelry, liquor bottles, currency, and cigarette cases emphasize rather than disguise the budgetary shortfall.

DeFelitta’s screenplay is as flat as last night’s champagne. His stilted dialogue is so trite that viewers will be able to complete sentences before the characters do, and his attempts at “smart” repartee die on his actors’ lips. Stuck with hopeless roles, the cast gives even more hopeless performances. Whaley’s idea of impersonating a playboy is a frenetic conflation of Mickey Rooney and Buster Poindexter. Boyle, who if she could act would be a natural for the lead in a Mary McCarthy biopic, is as stolid here as she was in Equinox and Where the Day Takes You. Obviously aware that he’s slumming, Gallagher barely animates his dark eyebrows.

Cheap, gauche, unconvincing, and, at two hours, nearly interminable, Cafe Society defies one’s impulse to offer a charitable crumb of praise. The only pleasure I derived was hearing old Peggy Lee and June Christy recordings on the soundtrack. Even moviegoers who would happily sit through a complete Ed Wood retrospective might find themselves sneaking out of this one. CP