Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Just Looking

Posted By on Wed, Nov 1, 2000 at 12:00 AM

This sweet-natured look at carnal curiosity in 1955, directed by actor Jason Alexander (“Seinfeld”), is almost the anti-Porky’s. Sex in Just Looking isn’t treated as forbidden or dirty, at least not in the conventional it’s-the-1950s-and-we’re-repressed way. It’s part of the great unknown which lies beyond the limited knowledge of 14-year-old Lenny (Ryan Merriman), who lives in a predominantly Jewish Bronx neighborhood.

With Lenny’s precocious narration setting the tone, screenwriter Marshall Karp creates a charming, ribald memory tale about the rocky transition from innocence to experience. Lenny’s stated goal is to witness a man and woman “in the act of love,” and when he’s sent to spend the summer in bucolic Queens with “a pregnant woman and an Italian stud,” namely his aunt and uncle, he makes some important alliances. Uncle Phil (Peter Onorati) becomes the first adult he can speak freely to, followed quickly by Hedy (Gretchen Mol), the local beauty, a nurse and — to Lenny’s delight — one-time underwear model.

Then there’s the “Sex Club” headed by Alice (Amy Braverman) — a font of practical information (imagine Dr. Ruth as a Catholic schoolgirl) — which brings Lenny’s private obsessions out into the open. This aspect of Just Looking is what distinguishes it from other retro teen-sex comedies. There’s no screaming about sin or witch-hunt hysteria. Lenny is surrounded by people who freely speak their minds, and sex just happens to be the most popular topic of conversation.

Alexander is a bread-and-butter director: nothing flashy or earth-shattering here, just solid performances and a story told with clarity and kindness. It’s a lovely little surprise from a performer who became a cultural icon as the embodiment of petty, neurotic self-absorption. Goodbye, George Costanza, and good riddance.

Showing exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

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