Lea Thompson’s first film as a director — a brisk, breezy, sharp-elbowed, sexually frank, occasionally shouty, often-hilarious comedy — stars the performer’s own daughters and plays like both a raucous family party and an urgently necessary corrective. Despite its title, The Year of Spectacular Men is above all else about women, about sisters. And despite a couple of swoony first kisses and a pair of jubilantly comic sex scenes, the romance in this somewhat romantic comedy is between family members: Older sis Izzy (Madelyn Deutch, who wrote the script), just graduated from college and not sure what she wants from this life, finds her way to opening herself more fully to the younger Sabrina (Zoey Deutch), a film actress whose romances fascinate TMZ. Thompson and screenwriter Deutch center their young women’s choices, desires, mistakes, disappointments and work in a welcome parody of Hollywood’s treatment of young women. Molly Ringwald recently wrote a stellar New Yorker piece interrogating the sexism that underpins the ’80s comedies she once starred in; by making this film, Thompson, Ringwald’s Reagan-era Hollywood colleague, has taken her own step toward making things better.
Yes, it’s one of those muddling-toward-adulthood movies, an indie that’s a little rough at the edges (cars passing by on a street somehow distract from one crucial speech) but also sunnily commercial in its look and tone, its bopping rhythms and epigrammatic chatter, its upbeat soundtrack, its scenes of sexual disasters, its “So, did you sleep with him?” city-street walk-and-talks, its conviction that quinoa is fundamentally alien and comic. In short, it’s the kind of XX-chromosome comedy that could have made millions for studios for generations, the kind of movie Thompson has rarely gotten to star in — a Casual Sex? without the question mark, one where sex isn’t a hangup.
In one of the best scenes, Izzy hooks up with a near stranger, a musician played by the charismatic Brandon T. Jackson, back at his home. As they energetically bounce and grind, the new lovers feel around for a condom, giggle at the process of putting it on, decide after a couple of uncertain thrusts to add some lube, and then — at Izzy’s request — decide to flip over, to put her on top. That’s not easy, but rather than the usual movie-comedy tendency to make awkward sex a miserable disaster, Thompson’s film finds the pair amused, turned on, eager to keep at it no matter how goofy they get. Their collective maneuvering eventually puts them onto the musician’s hardwood floor, where after some rolling about, Izzy at last hauls herself up to stride him. In her moment of triumph, we see that she now has one of his guitar picks slicked to her bare back. She doesn’t care, though — they’re having too much fun.
Fun. Why is it so rare in sex comedies for sex to seem fun? As the title suggests, the movie follows Izzy through a handful of encounters with men over the course of a year. She has post-breakup sex with a man who enrages her. This scene, too — like actual sex — is all about the performers reacting to each other, creating something singular between themselves. (It’s also very funny.) Even the inevitable terrible sex, with a new dude who finishes before they’ve even started, is far from the usual humiliation comedy: Izzy insists that it’s no big deal, that she likes him and wants to spend time with him. She seems to hope that sex is something they can discover together.
That doesn’t work out, but that’s mostly because the movie isn’t actually about Izzy’s men. It’s about her women: sister Sabrina and mother Deb (played by Thompson), who has in recent years fallen in love with the hippie-dippie Amethyst (Melissa Bolona). (Bolona sadly gets the script’s stalest characterization, a clichéd new-age drip that was already old hat when Woody Allen trotted it out in Husbands and Wives, and she’s on the receiving end of one angry utterance of the word dyke that would better suit those ’80s comedies this movie improves upon than one from 2018.) The Deutch sisters make an electric screen pairing, their scenes crackling with complex affection and exasperation. They win laughs even between their scripted jokes: an eye roll, a cackle, a sense that they know each other so well that they’re annoyed or amused in anticipation of what the other will do next. It’s infectious and invigorating. At its best, which is often, The Year of Spectacular Men is like a party with the funniest sisters you know. Please, how about a series where these same characters solve mysteries or something?