John Waters is a victim.
Success -- and excess -- has spoiled him. Waters will never be able to trump himself when it comes to grossing out the audience the way his earlier films such as Pink Flamingo and Desperate Living did. While there are shades of yuckiness in all his works, the tone since Polyester has taken a decidedly sweet turn. In fact, Pecker was almost saccharine. In this age of South Park and Scary Movie, Waters’ films can seem almost tame.
Still, Waters is far too freakish for the mainstream. While his later films may not induce vomiting, they certainly induce thinking, a process apparently lost on mainstream filmmakers and filmgoers alike. While Waters has maintained his cult status, conventional success has, so far, eluded him.
If all the planets align and the gods are smiling, and if we all knock on wood, Cecil B. Demented should be the film that makes John Waters more than just a mention in articles on the return of gross-out comedies. Clearly this movie marks Waters maturation as a filmmaker and, most importantly, a storyteller. Cecil B. Demented is chock full of all those wonderfully subversive bits that proclaim, “This is a John Waters film,” with a heretofore unseen cohesion and focus that makes this one rollicking hour-and-half of hilarity.
By far, Cecil B. Demented is John Waters’ best film and certainly the funniest movie this year.
Cecil B. DeMented (Stephen Dorff) is an indie auteur, hellbent on making films his way, not catering to the lowest common denominator and, by all means, avoiding the cinematic heresy of Hollywood filmmaking. The charismatic Cecil leads The Sprocket Holes, a band of misfits who so love independent cinema that they’ve tattooed the names of maverick directors on their bodies.
Cherish (Alicia Witt) is a former porn actress; “Andy Warhol” is inked on her thigh. Leading man Lyle (Adrian Grenier) is a junkie; he has “Herschell Gordon Lewis” tattooed on his chest. Redneck driver Petie is gay; “Fassbinder” is tattooed on his forearm. Hairdresser Rodney (Jack Noseworthy) wishes he was gay; he has “Almodovar” on his bicep. Satanic makeup artist Raven (Maggie Gyllenhaal) drinks goat pee and has the very appropriate “Kenneth Anger” inked on her neck, and together with a half dozen other equally outlandish rebels, they plot the revolution.
DeMented and crew plan to avenge true cinematic vision against the oppressive Hollywood juggernaut. At the premiere of Some Kind of Happiness, Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith)’s latest exercise in shamelessness, DeMented and the Sprocket Holes orchestrate a complicated kidnapping, shanghaiing Honey in the name of auteur theory. Casting Honey as the star of Raving Beauty, Cecil’s uber-verite “ultimate reality” film, DeMented, Honey and The Sprocket Holes wreak havoc on mall theatres, film commission brunches and the Hollywood Establishment.
Soon, Honey finds herself “brainwashed,” believing in DeMented’s vision as her star begins to rise with a growing cult fan base. Not unlike Mickey and Mallory-mania in Natural Born Killers, Cecil B. DeMentia starts to sweep the nation -- or at least Baltimore. The Sprocket Holes enlist the aid of porno freaks, action film fans and drive-in theatergoers as they declare war on ardent family-film champions, the Maryland Film Commission and bad cinema, culminating in a bloody, fiery conclusion to Raving Beauty.
The best kind of satire, Cecil B. Demented not only sets its sights on easy targets -- mainstream films, sequelmania, the entertainment press -- but also opens fire on the opposing side. Waters aims his sharpened wit at indie filmmakers (in particular, it seemed to me he was jeering Dogme95), himself included. And he isn’t above making fun of his hometown Baltimore and the citizenry’s obsession with seafood. As bent as he ever was, John Waters packs Cecil B. DeMented with weirdness: Patty Hearst makes a cameo in a film about kidnapping and brainwashing, a female character with a beard is played by an actress who actually has a beard and Alicia Witt appears opposite a gerbil in one of the funniest -- and most disturbingly erotic -- parodies of porn films ever.
John Waters may be a victim of his own lack of success, but it’s obvious that he hasn’t been victimized by it. He may never return to the gross-out glory of Pink Flamingos, but, frankly, that’s okay by me. Cecil B. Demented is a marvelously subversive blend of high- and low-brow humor, gunfire and wordplay, indie aesthete and just plain bad taste.