March 10, 2009

Sex and the Single Girl

Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): **½

It should surprise no one that when Warner Brothers tapped Joseph Heller to adapt Cosmopolitan editrix's Helen Gurley Brown's 1962 bestseller Sex and the Single Girl the scribe behind hyper male-centric satires like Catch-22 and Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man would be somewhat befuddled by the plot-free (though delightfully ageless) testament to glamour and female sexual liberation. The resulting film would be a toothless sex farce celebrating marriage that feels at times oddly spiteful.

Natalie Wood plays Dr. Helen Gurley Brown, a psychologist whose titular bestseller touting the virtues of pursuing careers and casual sex has made her the target of Stop Magazine, an uber-sleazy, low-budget tabloid. Tony Curtis plays journalist Bob Weston who writes a fake expose to smear her good name by alleging that she is a virgin and that her depictions of women's desires are total fantasy. Since she won't sit down for an interview with him, he eavesdrops on his neighbors (Henry Fonda and a disturbingly tan Lauren Bacall) whose marital arguments he uses as a ruse to become one of Brown's patients. But hijinks ensue when he falls in love with Brown and concocts a complicated scheme to make her fall in love with him, first by threatening to commit suicide and then getting her drunk. The film also provides an ersatz narration by Weston's girlfriend (played by Vegas stalwart Fran Jeffries), a lounge singer who - in case you were having trouble keeping up with the complexities of the plot - is here to reiterate it, complete with exuberant hip gyrations. Rounding out the all-star cast, legendary jazz piano man William "Count" Basie fronts her band, who follows her from his house to clubs with surprising ease.

Despite it's far nobler parentage, Sex and the Single Girl, now out on DVD as part of a Natalie Wood collection, is a charming addition to the canon of Confused American Sexuality Comedies of Sixties alongside films like How to Marry a Millionaire, Libeled Lady and the entire career of Doris Day. The material has not aged well but the cast gives it their all. It's delightful to see Henry Fonda in a suit, Tony Curtis still manages a little cross-dressing and Natalie Wood's coiffures defy all sense of physics. The film goes out with a bang, a 20-minute car chase scene that will have you wondering if it wasn't a tipping point in our collective decency when people stopped temporarily yielding their high-speed car chases to pay bridge tolls.

DVD extras include a Warner Brothers cartoon ("Nelly's Folly") and the theatrical trailer.

See also: What a Way To Go!, Down With Love, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Valley of the Dolls, Mad Men, That Touch of Mink.

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Posted by cphillips at March 10, 2009 9:33 AM

Nice review, E! Captures how this very odd movie looks nearly a half century later. Joseph Heller? Whew! I'd forgotten all about that.

Posted by: James van Maanen at March 10, 2009 9:09 PM
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