Cecil B. DeMented is the latest gleefully tacky comedy by John Waters, and like most of his movies, it's not nearly as funny as the idea of it. It's not nearly as funny as Waters himself, the person or the terrific essayist.
I love Waters. I love a lot of his movies: Pink Flamingoes, Polyester, Female Trouble, Serial Mom. They're like crabby old bus drivers or deli counter help who yell, “What da'ya want?” They're oddly comforting and pleasant, and you can't image the world without them.
But sitting through a Watersmovie lately has been like spending an evening with charming people who know a lot of good jokes but are constantly botching the punch lines. There's an empty feeling of delay here. You want to laugh. And sometimes you do, but usually you're laughing at riffs, a bunch of funny thoughts and lines - “Hi, I'm Raven. I'm a Satanist, and I'll be doing your makeup,” “All extras! Keep eating the oysters or you will be shot!” - dangling awkwardly, waiting for someone with better timing to tell them.
On the other hand, the train wreck is the destination here. Another director might have made a funnier movie with the same material, but artlessness is what a John Waters movie is all about. It's an acquired taste. Or a studied ineptitude.
I remember a movie trailer for Pink Flamingoes that was actually a compilation of comments from the audience. One man quips, “It's the future of city living!” I have no idea what he means, but I couldn't help thinking about that line during Cecil. Waters has always been an eccentric mix of old and new sen
sibilities: '50s B-movie schlock and '70s radical chic. But here, frankly, he just seems so out of it.
Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) is a movie star, and while visiting Baltimore (Waters' hometown and the setting for all his movies) she's kidnapped by Cecil, a young, mad director (Stephen Dorff) who lives in an abandoned movie theater with his band of film revolutionaries, the Sprocket Holes.
Their plan: Force Whitlock to act in one of their cheesy films. Force her to join their guerilla raids about the big, bland movie industry - all in the name of underground cinema, no less. They disrupt theaters showing the director's cut of Patch Adams. They attack the Maryland Film Commission.
Again, talk about an old joke. Maybe 15 years ago the message here would have been subversive, but the Sprocket Holes have three-picture deals these days. The stormy aesthetics of underground cinema are everywhere now, from the handheld cameras of The Blair Witch Project to the bitterness of American Beauty, to the pretense of The Cell, MTV, and Volkswagen commercials. Art houses, especially, reek of the hip, ironic, and raw. The multiplexes are no better. And you don't have to kidnap a movie star to get him or her to appear in a no-budget experiment these days. It's a career choice, a way of gaining “indie credibility.”
Besides, you'd be hard-pressed to find movie lovers, from Hollywood to the lowliest film-school anarchist, who would defend the sheer crush of mediocrity that creeps out of Hollywood - or into the typical art house - in any given week. Waters is barking up the right tree, but he doesn't seem to realize he's won.
His movies have plowed a path that led camp straight into the mainstream. Waters-inspired gross-outs are everywhere (even if Waters-inspired heart is noticeably absent). He's hasn't been the exception for years.
If you go to movies regularly, if you care at all abut them, you don't need a band of film guerrillas to tell you it's rough going out there.