SXSW 2018 Review: THE UNICORN Spices Up The Romantic Comedy Genre

Director Robert Schwartzman normalizes sexuality through humor and wit.

Societal pressures run deep in romantic relationships. The need to display an image of loving perfection and passion to exude security is a feeling that I’m sure audiences can relate to at one time or another. Director of Dreamland, Robert Schwartzman, explores the intricate nature of romantic intimacy and attraction in his new film, The Unicorn. A playful awkwardness is maintained throughout while openly examining the diverse dynamics of what constitutes a triumphant, happy relationship. Writers Kirk C. Johnson, Nick Rutherford, and Will Elliott successfully cradle the uncomfortable nature of sexual exploration with a hilarious script that arouses continuous laughter. Sexuality is explored in a comedic nature but with a respectful inclusion that allows the main characters to embrace their fantasies and ultimately, their love for one another.

The film opens with an immediate introduction to Cal (Nick Rutherford) proposing to his fiance Mal (Lauren Lapkus) for a second time. It’s been four years since he first popped the question causing dormant uncertainty to bubble up at Mal’s parents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary party. Witnessing the flamboyant passion of her parents (played by Beverly D’Angelo and John Kapelos), the estranged couple quickly learn that the secret to their happiness is the involvement of a third party or a “unicorn” in the bedroom. Feeling both disgusted with this discovery yet simultaneously intrigued about the situation saving their own humdrum relationship, Mal and Cal decide not to be the lame couple anymore by embracing a night out on the town - open to anything and anyone.

They encounter three potential unicorns throughout the film that serve as catalysts for the characters to learn more about themselves and their relationship. First, they post up at a bar in Palm Springs where Mal hits it off with an attractive and wild young woman named Jesse (Lucy Hale). The three of them migrate to Jesse’s apartment where she innocently breaks physical boundaries by practicing her work as an energy alchemist (stones, bead curtains, the whole deal). Hale’s performance radiates an enticing aura of sexuality and naturalness. Turning the couple on by accident, they retreat to the bathroom to have the first in-depth conversation about how a threesome would affect their relationship and what it would entail if they choose to move forward. While their analyzation and checking-in with each other is silly in its vulgarity, it’s still one of the first defining moments in their evolving relationship that sets the precedent for healthy communication necessary for sexual exploration with a partner.

Later on, the intoxicated love birds decide to crash a bachelorette party at a club called N10CT. Antics do in fact get intense while they meet the owner, a former male stripper by the name of Tyson (Beck Bennett). Cutting loose and trying to fulfill Mal’s fantasy, Cal embraces a sexual encounter with Tyson, but their interaction is cut short due to his clearly uncomfortable body language - a boundary Mal quickly notices and addresses. It becomes evident that Cal is more insecure in his sexuality than his fiance, who has previously dated a woman while she was in college. Despite Cal’s apprehension, there is no shaming involved. The couple are genuinely trying to embrace a new component into their love life without being disrespectful or derogatory to their prospective unicorns. It’s a subtle layer of their love for one another but also a progressive, inclusive approach to sexuality translated on film. It would be easy (albeit disappointing) to take the childish route of comedy with shameful language, but the script is smart enough to stimulate humor without the use of damaging dialogue - a rare skill when sex and comedy are combined. The fact that the film displays an openness to both sexes and embraces sexual exploration with a consideration of every party involved is also quite refreshing to witness on screen. 

In their last encounter, they hire a “massage therapist”, a professional meant to help guide them. Mal is open to it, but Cal’s neurotic tendencies explode resulting from his insecurities and feelings of isolation. Unable to fully process his emotions, he lashes out at both of his partners and decides that he isn’t able to go through with a threesome after all. Secrets are revealed, trust is questioned, and the couple find themselves more torn than ever. However, in this scene, the use of gender stereotypes is adeptly deconstructed. Typically, women are viewed as reluctant to new sexual experiences, in need of constant approval and attention from their partner, while also insecure in their physical appearance. Cal’s character emcompasses all of these stereotypes that women typically face, but it conveys the notion that these are merely human experiences - not limited to sex or gender. This emotional climax - while temporarily detrimental to the characters’ relationship - allows the overall film to emanate a sense of opposition to cultural norms. The Unicorn conveys a message that it’s acceptable for men to feel these vulnerable emotions and it’s also acceptable for women to freely embrace their sexuality while feeling confident in their skin.

The couple take a hard look at their relationship in comparison to their parents and their siblings. While each couple has their challenges, the outward expression is a paradox to what is really going on behind closed doors. The Unicorn explores these secrets in a transparent manner, utilizing comedy to lighten the otherwise heavy, and perhaps even controversial subject matter. The discussions around relationships, love, and intimacy are all presented with a sex-positive approach.The use of comedic timing is well orchestrated, and the chemistry between all of the characters is palpable. Performances on screen and the themes of the film deliver one hell of a funny story. Cleverly crafted, this comedy boldly challenges romantic and sexual stereotypes which makes it a unicorn in and of itself.