In his last movie, 1990's Cry-Baby, writer/director/bad-taste maven John Waters seemed to be off his game. There were terrific individual scenes, but the film sorely lacked the unifying personality common to all but one of his previous features (Desperate Living): the late and lamented, absurdly endearing transvestite star Divine (this opinion should prove my objectivity, since I appear for a few seconds in Cry-Baby).
It looked as if perhaps the comic impetus behind the director's gleeful, energetic sleaze farces had been lost with Divine's passing. But the new film from Waters, Serial Mom, is an unexpectedly lively piece of work. That Serial Mom is good for laughs, at least to those of us who connect with Waters' hyperbolic style, is no surprise. That it's as sharp-minded and tacitly angry in its satirical aims, however, is a little startling.
Set in the Baltimore suburb of Towson, it's the story of a woman finding herself. Kathleen Turner plays the title role, an insufferable caricature of the white, suburban, middle-class TV mom, who has stumbled onto a hobby for which she has a real passion--murdering people who annoy her. It unseats her previous secret pastimes, like reading true-crime books, corresponding with imprisoned serial killers and harassing a neighbor (Mink Stole) with obscene phone calls. Sometimes, her killings are motivated by personal affronts, like a teacher who questions the interest her son (the charming Matthew Lillard) takes in splatter films--You must be doing something wrong!" the teacher blatantly tells Mom--or a boy who sneaks around on her daughter (Ricki Lake) with another young woman (Traci Lords). But just as often, Mom is moved to bloodshed over violations of propriety--failing to recycle, failing to rewind a video before returning it, wearing white shoes after Labor Day. From the outside--the ads and trailers--this all looks too cheap and easy and clich to be viable as satire. In a saner world, it would be. But as I watched it, I thought of the most recent Republican convention, and I thought, yes, this is a vision of the wholesome, unambiguous world those people were calling for, and that murder is a legitimate metaphor for how badly they want it.
Not that Waters is being polemic. It's doubtful that anything would bore him more than politics. The only overt social stand he takes is to spoof pro-death-penalty enthusiasts--he has a minister observe to his congregation, "Jesus never said anything against capital punishment while he was hanging on the cross." Waters' true target is simply the paranoia, judgmentalism and obsessive perfectionism of the white, suburban lifestyle.
Waters makes one other choice in presenting this material that is wonderfully right: He doesn't try to cheat on the murders and all they imply. Other satires have flirted with making murderers into heroes, but too many (Heathers springs to mind) wimp out by making the killings demure, so as not to damage our sympathies for the killers. The murders in Serial Mom aren't precisely believable--Waters takes his stylistic cue for them from the gore flicks (phony-looking to jaded modern filmgoers) of schlock king Herschell Gordon Lewis--but they aren't staged to minimize the pain the characters are in. Most of Waters' old films make murder into sordid, grimy slapstick, but Serial Mom gives it weight.
Waters doesn't mind if you sympathize with Mom's victims; probably, he wants you to sympathize with them (a couple of them are likable). He knows that in the whacked-out, anything-goes world he creates, he can make you root for a murderess and feel sorry for her victim at the same time. If one value rules supreme in the chaotic Waters utopia, it's polite acceptance of the foibles of others.
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This extends, even, to complete acceptance of a woman who will kill before she accepts anything new. While pleading for her life, the white-shoes-after-Labor Day woman whimpers to Mom, "Please . . . fashion is changing!" And this is how she incurs Mom's full wrath. In part, Waters clearly approves--his heroine is acting out his disproportionately atavistic fantasies. That's what Divine used to do in Waters' films, like when she sentenced the Marbles to death for "first-degree assholism" in Pink Flamingos.
Turner takes up these reins admirably, alternating scary scowls with blushing smiles of fulfillment. She's had some dreary times lately (like the contemptible House of Cards), and except as the voice of Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, she hasn't been this enjoyable since her performance in John Huston's great Prizzi's Honor, in which she also played a morally unconscionable yet attractive killer. Waters gets the usual unsubtle, funny performances he likes out of the rest of the cast, with Sam Waterston making a good straight man as the befuddled dentist Dad, and Lake flashing her big, melting, teenybopper grin to fine effect.
I certainly don't mean to suggest that Serial Mom is some great human achievement, or that, like the Waters crossover hit Hairspray, it's for all tastes. But it marks a happy return to form for Waters. He can't go all the way back to making "gutter movies," of course. There's a scene in which a woman asks her dog to lick her feet--Get em real wet!" she says--as she watches the video of Annie. The poor dog does so, and the woman's eyes roll with pleasure. In Waters' early days, this would have been a full-fledged fetish, sending the woman into an orgasmic frenzy.
Here, he pulls back, but the fact that gags like this are present at all is encouraging. Waters is a splendid humorist, but not a cinema maker in the usual sense. With Cry-Baby, he made the mistake of trying for something like a conventional movie. With Serial Mom, he resorts again to shock tactics, like those of the exploitation filmmakers he idolizes. Like the streets of his beloved Baltimore, this is his real turf.