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What is a comedy doing in a horror movie page you may ask? First of all, CECIL B. DEMENTED isn't your typical comedy. It was written and directed by John Waters, who for three decades was to Hollywood roughly what Freddy Krueger is to slumber parties. Say what you will, witnessing a drag queen actually eating dog shit still takes a stronger-than-average stomach, even in the days of CGI and cum manufactured hair gel.
PINK FLAMINGO may have retained its shock value over the years, but its director has been embraced as part of popular culture. (SCREAM even featured a lavatory scene that looked suspiciously like the one in SERIAL MOM, though the latter ended much gorier.) While audiences have become more jaded, Waters has mellowed, which could be a wise move from someone who had nowhere to go after taking extremes to their extremes. Some would be quick to consider this a sell-out. Which is probably what CECIL B. DEMENTED, Waters' anti-Hollywood manifesto, was meant to set straight.
Melanie Griffith (FEAR CITY, PACIFIC HEIGHTS) is Honey Whitlock, in more ways than one. Honey's a star, honey. And like every star, there is the public Honey and the private one. Guess which one is so excited about being wherever she is and doing whatever she does. Guess which one bullies her assistant (Ricki Lake) into asking a hotel manager if Pat Nixon ever got fucked in her suite - then, once the assistant has complied, bullies her again for not knowing a joke when she hears one. Guess which one is more fun.
Griffith's high pitched delivery is equally at home delivering PC platitudes or having a tantrum and she plays both sides so gamely you feel she's been itching to send up her star persona for years. This is the best thing about Waters going kind-of-mainstream: watching stars doing the sort of things that would get them fired from a Spielberg set.
Honey Whitlock is in Baltimore for the premiere of her new movie. This is a golden opportunity for the town to get some much needed glamour. It's an even better opportunity for loony aspiring filmmaker Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff: THE GATE, BLOOD AND WINE, BLADE) and his "crew" to kidnap her. Only they don't call it kidnapping. They call it rescuing her career.
As off the wall as Cecil is on many levels, he seems to be right on target about that one: despite her stardom, Honey's filmography has obviously its ups and downs; the ups being successful turkeys and the downs unsuccesful ones - not unlike Griffith's own career, as anyone who saw her '98 whogivesafuckdunnit BURDEN OF PROOF will reflect.
Cecil plans to direct Honey in his own masterpiece, a terrorist attack version of a movie, that will tell Hollywood once and for all that blockbuster time is over and real cinema is back. Taking the words "guerilla filmmaking" to the letter, Cecil's "script" includes violent raids in multiplexes, studio executives meetings and the likes, all filmed live with Honey as an increasingly willing participant. The violence mounts as they get closer to the core of what's rotten in film kingdom: the set of "Gump Again", the sequel to FORREST GUMP.
Which doesn't mean that only art should survive. Like the members of Cecil's crew who all have a cult director's name tattooed on them, Waters (and Cecil) care about their classics, but they're not elitist about it either. The first people to show Cecil's gang any support are kung fu and porno theaters patrons. Any cinema is good cinema as long as it's passionate and sincere.
What both directors, actual and fictional, have a bone to pick with is the Hollywood that plays it by the box office numbers and whose artistic dares don't go further than endless retellings of Cinderella. Waters would rather have his heroine going from Tinseltown princess to rag girl than the opposite for he, like Tim Burton, loves nothing better than a misfit. And there has rarely been such an endearing collection of misfits as Cecil's overzealous and undersexed followers (the director motivates his team by forbidding anyone to have sex until the movie is completed.)
Like Disney's dwarfs, each crew member is a model of dysfunction : Cherish, (Alicia Witt, no doubt expiating here for URBAN LEGEND) is Cecil's girlfriend and Melanie's co-star, an ex porn actress who has never met someone she didn't screw, starting with her own family. Male co-star Lyle (Adrian Grenier), confides proudly to Honey: 'Before I was a drug addict, I had many problems. Now I only have one.'
Hairdresser Rodney (Jack Noseworthy: BREAKDOWN, EVENT HORIZON, IDLE HANDS) can't come to terms with his sexual orientation (he's straight) Goth make up girl Ravel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) worships Satan and Cecil on equal footing. And those are the ones with the best social skills in the bunch.
Waters is bent on making a parallel between this family of outsiders and the fallen silent movie stars in SUNSET BOULEVARD (which Montgomery Clift called "the ultimate Hollywood ghost story.") This is the version where Norma Desmond makes her point with a gun. And almost looks sane doing it: when the only alternative left is PATCH ADAMS - THE DIRECTOR'S CUT, you know drastic measures are called for.
So drastic in fact that Honey's adventure is a barely disguised retelling of Patty Hearst's story. Flashback to 1974: a few months after her abduction by the Symbionise Liberation Army (the name says it all), millionaire Hearst's granddaughter resurfaces machine gun in hand in a bank robbery, having apparently espoused her kidnappers cause. Judge and jury were not amused. Cut to a lengthy prison sentence. Fast forward to 1990: Waters, whose sense of rebellion starts with the casting, gives Patricia Hearst a role in CRY BABY and has since been using her regularly as an icon of middle-class conservatism. An untrained actress, Hearst can nonetheless play this kind of part on autopilot now and after her superior turn in SERIAL MOM, one wishes Waters would actually use her for something beyond mere provocation.
More importantly, Waters fails to exploit the obvious potential of his lead actor. A grating waste, considering what a great choice Dorff was for the part. But Cecil's character is so one dimensional, Stephen Dorff has no choice but to play him on the same shrill note throughout.
This is the major problem with CECIL B. DEMENTED: Like most of Waters flicks, it kicks off with a good idea that remains at its most basic expression. After a while, it becomes clear the movie hasn't got much to say beyond what was established in the first 15 minutes. The humor gets staler, to the point of making the satire look almost as brainless as the blockbusters it is supposed to mock. Despite some truly fun moments, there's not much past the initial war cry of "Fuck the studio system." Which, incidentally, is exactly what a certain no budget indie horror movie we won't name managed to do last summer. Before its directors went mainstream, of course.
What do you give a so-so John Waters film? Three shriek girls and three negatives.