Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On DVD: "Group Marriage"

Group Marriage is a ‘70s sexploitation flick, and as such, it shouldn’t surprise you much to learn that it’s not terribly good. But for a ‘70s sexploitation flick, it’s decent—and what’s more, a bit of knowledge about what was happening outside the frame makes what happens within it infinitely more interesting.

Released in 1973 by Dimension Films (no relation to the Miramax/Weinstein offshoot, though Tarantino appropriated their logo for his half of Grindhouse), Group Marriage begins as the story of two couples: Businesswoman Chris (Aimée Echols) and her live-in boyfriend Sandor (Solomon Sturges), and parole officer Dennis (Jeff Pomerantz) and his girlfriend Jan (Victoria Vetri). Chris and Sandor help Dennis when his car breaks down; he ends up crashing at their house and sleeping with Chris. He’s nervous about it at first, but Chris has a way of framing an argument. “Why does everyone think you only have to care for one person?” she asks innocently (yet not so innocently). When Sandor finds out, he’s mad—but less so when he meets knockout Jan.

In a scene that’s framed and played as a winking nod to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the quartet goes to bed together, but Chris gets a sudden case of monogamy and stops the action. “I was afraid if I shared you with Jan, I’d lose you,” she confesses to Sandor, almost sounding like she means it. He assures her she won’t, and the swapping begins. The circle expands when Jan picks up lifeguard Phil (Zack Taylor) when the group has a beach picnic; Chris offers him some chicken (Her: “Would you care for a breast?” Him: “Actually, I’m a leg man”) and the women bring him home. He eventually brings lawyer Elaine (Claudia Jennings) into the house—but by then, they’re starting to attract attention.

In many ways, Group Marriage is a fairly typical exploitation picture, with the typical problems: production values are expectedly low, dialogue often sounds clumsily dubbed, and the jokes are just terrible, from the throwaway lines (“Jan, I think I’m gonna sleep here tonight… do what to myself?”) to the goofy music cues (a line about an ancient Chinese proverbs gets the Asian gong and sitcom music not once, but twice) to the comic set pieces (a bit with people answering an ad for the sixth slot sweats like a first-time stand-up at an open mic, but doesn’t generate a single laugh). Supporting characters are either forgettable or cringe-inducing—none more than the snooping, mincing gay neighbors (though their final beat is shockingly timely). The female actors are impossibly good-looking, but their acting is pretty wooden; the sole exception is Vetri, who is given an actual character arc and plays it well. There’s not much to her big final scene, but she takes the opportunity to do some real acting in it—and, surprisingly, she doesn’t embarrass herself delivering Lauren Bacall’s “whistle” line. Among the men, only porn-mustachioed Pomerantz makes much of an impression. Sturges never really finds a note past sleazeball for Sandor, while Taylor’s stiff line readings make his dumb character come off even dumber (when the group’s house starts getting obscene phone calls, he announces, “It’s that TV report, I guess.” Gee, ya think?).

What is not typical about Group Marriage is that it is the work of Stephanie Rothman (she co-wrote and directed), one of the few female filmmakers to carve out a niche in the exploitation world. As a result, the characterizations and subtext are a bit more interesting than usual. Her female characters call the shots, both in the bedroom and out of it; Chris in particular is an atypical female role for the genre, brazen and sexually forward, with a charming proficiency under the hood of an automobile (an early scene pointedly features her showing up to fix her old man’s car). Later, during a group discussion about Chris’s unexpected pregnancy, Rothman holds on her actress’s face as she listens to the others—mostly the men—discussing what to do about it, daring to try and sort her life out for her. Stuff like that pops up slyly throughout the picture; the sexual politics of Elain and Phil’s conversation about his ex-wife (both in the lines and between them) could fill a book, even if the outcome of that argument is unfortunately less daring than what is said during it.

There is probably a compelling case to be made that there’s not much net gain in smuggling questions of gender roles and carnal diplomacy into a film whose audience is primarily interested in getting the actresses’ tops off. But knowing that Rothman was working that stuff in, and watching the movie through that prism, makes Group Marriage a more engrossing viewing experience than your average low-down grindhouse picture.

Though Group Marriage is more about its nudge-nudge premise and occasional nudity (for the record, there’s more skin than actual action, and less skin than you might expect), it does have some interesting subtext, a couple of noteworthy performances, and a pretty clever ending. It is, by no means, something you need to run right out and see. But for fans of the genre, it offers some spice.

"Group Marriage" is out now on DVD. For bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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