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'Cecil B. Demented' a fumbling, failed satire
(CNN) -- The problem with John Waters making a movie about the sorry state of commercial cinema is that his output is only a little more useful than what he's satirizing. "Cecil B. Demented" is a tiresome Hollywood revenge fantasy that quickly establishes a surface, then skims across it for 90 minutes.
Film students will undoubtedly praise Waters' sarcastic take on Tinseltown egotism, not to mention his characters' militant stance on the merits of do-it-yourself movie production. Unfortunately, they won't notice that he's incapable of shooting interesting footage or properly directing actors. And his dialogue still sounds like advertising slogans for tastelessness, rather than coherent statements being issued by real people.
In case you're keeping score, "Cecil B. Demented" is better than "Pecker" (1998) and nowhere near as enjoyable as "Hairspray" (1988). It's hard not to repeat this every time you review a new Waters film, but if the peak of your 30-year output is "Hairspray," you should be happy you're making movies at all.
At least he's getting name actors now that he's been accepted into the mainstream -- not that it matters much when the actor's name is Melanie Griffith.
"Cecil B. Demented" features Griffith as Honey Whitlock, a bitchy, arrogant movie star who's kidnapped in the first sequence by a team of guerilla filmmakers. She's then forced to star in a no-budget, "ultimate reality" film that takes place among real people and features real violence.
You can see how this concept would appeal to Waters. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to put up with his giddy, unbridled obviousness and wait for the amusing punchlines. All eight of them.
The renegade film crew, a gang of young misfits known as the Sprocket Holes, is led by its straight jacket-clad director, Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff). Waters says that Cecil is his idea of a real cult director, someone who possesses the mad-dog charisma of Charles Manson while preaching pure cinema to his followers.
His congregation includes a sexy former porn star named Cherish (Alicia Witt), and a team of zoned-out technicians who have rebel directors' names tattooed on their bodies, an array that lists everyone from from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Kenneth Anger.
Once again, though, a glue-sniffing nutcase with Herschell Gordon Lewis' name emblazoned on his chest will appeal mostly to geeky video store clerks and fledgling David Lynches. The rest of the audience, if they actually know who Lewis is, will just smirk for a second. (For the record, Lewis directed such gruesome 1960s drive-in pictures as "Blood Feast" and "Two Thousand Maniacs!", among others.)
Little to say
That's how the whole movie operates. Waters has the characters, who barely seem to be interacting with each other, shout propaganda slogans that encourage the demise of big-budget cinema. And they sometimes reference especially horrendous examples of where Hollywood's money-for-nothing mentality has led the industry.
Every man, woman, and child in America should bad-mouth "Patch Adams" (1998) at least once, and Waters scores with a scene in which the Sprocket Holes violently overthrow a theater that's showing it. But pointing out that "Patch Adams" is a piece of contrived, sentimental crap hardly qualifies as insight; Waters is a fitfully funny guy with very, very little to say.
The performances are like something you'd see at a small-town dinner theater. Griffith, who's usually garish without anybody's help, is tarted up and brain-washed as Honey. Her little-girl voice, which worked in her favor when she was younger, now squeaks from the reconstructed visage of a 43 year-old woman. Like everybody else in the movie, she delivers her har-dee-har dialogue as if she doesn't want to keep it in her head too long.
Just getting the sentences out in the proper sequence is considered an accomplishment in a Waters picture. Dorff isn't any better, and arguably a little worse. And Witt, who's proven in the past that she can really act, is there mostly for her praiseworthy breasts and go-getter willingness to dry hump Dorff on-camera.
It may not be "Patch Adams," but that doesn't mean that it's worth your money.
Of course there are offensive moments in "Cecil B. Demented." If there weren't, it wouldn't be a John Waters picture. You get a bit of gunplay, but the big moments include making fun of a wheelchair-bound child, actors pretending to perform oral sex on each other, and one character named Fidget who really likes to masturbate. It's not likely to cause riots, mostly because there won't be enough people in the theater to generate a proper stampede. Rated R. 88 minutes.
CBD 5 pointFive
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