P.J. Castellaneta's disarming farce Relax...It's Just Sex plays like a very special, very gay episode of 'Friends' where Monica and Rachel really set up housekeeping together and Joey finally jumps Chandler's bones. Eleven California chums meet and mingle, ever alive to one another's particular highs and lows. Vincey (Mitchell Anderson) is that eternal stereotype: the gay writer cluelessly looking for a boyfriend. Tara (Jennifer Tilly) listens supportively, obsessed as she is with having a baby by her commitment-shy boyfriend Gus (Timothy Paul Perez). Lesbian lovers Sarina (Cynda Williams) and Megan (Serena Scott Thomas) have just broken up over Megan's affair with Jered (Billy Wirth). Robin (Lori Petty), meanwhile, has long harbored a crush for Sarina which reaches a happy, if rather rocky, fruition. Lurking about as well are Diego (Chris Cleveland) and Dwight (Gibbs Toldsdorf), an infuriatingly compatible pair of bible-banging gym queens. At a dinner party where Gus' brother Javi (Eddie Garcia) announces he's HIV-positive, Vincey brings Buzz (T.C. Carson), an outspoken artist with some very voluble, radical notions about AIDS that set the table aroar. Buzz takes up with Javi, leaving Vincey once more in the romantic lurch. One night, he finds himself the victim of a gang of gay-bashers and retaliates with similar enraged violence. This incident shatters the clique for a while, but Tara's personal crisis and a healing period of time bring them all together again.

This might read like some seriously sappy, clichd stuff, but, as brightly written by Castellaneta and enacted by possibly the best ensemble cast ever assembled in gay film, it's a real gem. It starts off with a delightful little tongue-in-cheek prologue outlining gay stereotypes (like 'lipstick lesbian) and then proceeds for much of its length to shatter those very held notions. Anderson makes a highly sympathetic protagonist, ferociously smart, somewhat too eager to please in bed, but somehow just not buffed enough, or conformist enough, or plain cowardly enough to happily exist in a gay world that can be just as mundane and limited as any other. The gay-bashing scene is terrifying and cathartic, as well; it's a real step forward to see a gay character bash back and give what for instead of being the bloodied, helpless victim. That charming ding-a-ling of a Tilly finds her most fulfilling screen role yet, as a bodacious den mother to her pals, always eager to impart the latest dish (prefaced by 'But you mustn't breathe a word...') and right fast on her cha-cha heels, swinging a lethal-looking purse, when she senses Vince in danger. Petty is marvelous as a butch homegirl and very moving in her attempts to convince Sarina to get over Megan's 'girly girly shit' and get with her. Williams brings her lush, troubled beauty to her part and sings a terrific jazz ballad over the end credits. In a super-tricky role, T.C. Carson gives perhaps the best performance of the bunch: arrogant, wrongheaded, bombastic and dead sexy. (It's worlds removed from his oily turn as Kyle on the sitcom 'Living Single.') Making delightful cameo appearances are such as Paul Winfield (hilarious as the ever-sympatico 'Auntie Mahalia'), Seymour Cassel and, especially, the always demented Susan Tyrell, here expounding the joys of being a member of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) to her disappointment of a backsliding daughter, Megan.

--David Noh