With a title like "Sexaholix...A Love Story," John Leguizamo's recent one-man special on HBO gives us fair warning what we're in for: a one-two punch of cute raunchiness and unabashed romanticism; and a comedic enactment of the pull between yowling boy id and wised-up man love. But for the post-There's Something About Mary and -American Pie crowd, these dichotomies are familiar ground, and all the interest shifts to the gray area represented by the title's ellipses. How will our hero-as-character navigate between raging testosterone and happily ever after? How will our hero-as-performer balance funny smut with true emotion? It takes a subtle actor to pull that off, and John Leguizamo isn't that actor this time around. But he's so appealing, so talented, so hard-working -- such a whirling dervish of wild gesticulations, butt gyrations, and impersonations -- that somehow we don't mind waiting for the truly great performance that's sure to come.
As an actor, Leguizamo has appeared as a lisping Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge, a coy cross-dresser in To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and a computer-generated sloth in Ice Age. But few of his film roles have captured the charm, incisiveness, and manic energy of his stage performances, which include "Mambo Mouth," "Spic-O-Rama," and "Freak." Leguizamo has Robin Williams' antic hyperactivity and talent for mimicry, minus the shiny-eyed malevolence and all that body hair. Instead, Leguizamo channels his fiercely fucked-up dad, assorted drag queens, and a Latino homey desperate to turn Japanese into depictions that are often bitingly funny, but also shot through with personal truth and political commentary.
The premise for "Sexaholix" sounded good enough: an autobiographical look at Leguizamo's life from his screwed-up childhood to the birth of his second child. But like the show's title, it's been done before: the tattered family, the 24-7 teenage randiness, the sexcapades abruptly giving way to true love and responsible parenting. To make it fresh, a performer has to whip out original material or come up with universal, hard-hitting comedic insights. Unfortunately, Leguizamo merely resorts to some cliched jokes -- his girlfriend screams "You did this to me!" while giving birth -- and he flogs that dead-horse-in-pearls, the genteelly drunk and dysfunctional WASP family.
Granted, "Sexaholix" becomes stronger when Leguizamo moves farther away from the "personal development" angle of the story. One high point is his hysterical re-enactment of Latin origins, complete with a back-talking Incan princess and a white colonizer "with enough syphilis for two." Latin history, he says, has no "'once upon a time' . . . it's 'you motherfuckers ain't gonna believe this shit!'" Leguizamo also exploits his ear for the rhythms of others' speech to good effect when he enacts his grandparents' draggingly slow, daily game of poker, complete with their lascivious non sequiturs.
The best moments come when Leguizamo unites his prodigious physical talents as a comedian and dancer -- his indefatigable and gravity-defying butt is often a focus -- with his wit. For example, at one point Leguizamo imitates his mother -- resentful, stirring a pot, reaching a boiling point with the bratty kids. "Give me the flip-flops," she says in Spanish, then, "Now turn the radio on, so the neighbors don't hear you." Next he leaps and bounds to the music, screaming out her curses. "And that's how Latin hip-hop was born," he concludes. And when he impersonates his grandfather -- senile, mouth skewed to the side from a stroke -- the comedy gains a piercing, dark edge that makes it truly memorable. Leguizamo and his grandfather talk in the bathroom, the grandfather discussing life, death, and suffering while Leguizamo helps him pee. "Don't forget to shake it...who are you?" That moment of absurdity -- the sadness and humor of it -- marks the kind of wrenching comedy that Leguizamo is striving to make.
It makes some sense that Leguizamo, so pitch-perfect at imitating others, has wavered a bit when trying to find his own voice, to make art out of his own self-discovery. Leaving aside the awful, shrieky dynamics of his parents to become a new character -- responsible father and partner -- is still a new process. When his girlfriend asks him about children, he says, "Why do we need kids, we have me!" And in the same sense, Leguizamo's performance this time around doesn't seem fully matured -- he hasn't quite figured out how to consistently strike that note of raw truth that makes great comedy. But as the high points of "Sexaholix" and his past performances show, it will be a pleasure to watch him grow up.