movie review by
David Ng


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Cecil B. Demented

John Waters’ movies seldom give their audiences reason to stand up and cheer, but halfway through Cecil B. DeMented, when a group of underground cinema terrorists lay waste to a suburban movie theater playing Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut, you might feel a surge of pride as Jujube-popping housewives and their obese children succumb to tear gas. Waters, the king of bad taste and hater of all things mainstream, doesn’t stop there. At the top of his hit-list is the independent film community itself, embodied by the Sprocket Holes, a fictional group of cine-terrorists. Having abducted Hollywood superstar Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) from the Baltimore premiere of her latest romantic comedy, Some Kind of Happiness, they force her at gunpoint to star in their grungy, underground film. A thinly veiled reference to the Dogma group, the Sprocket Holes have taken a vow of chastity (which they take literally) and brand their flesh with a cult-like symbol of loyalty. The group's leader, Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff), preaches self-sacrifice in the name of Sinema. His aesthetic sensibility closer to Ed Wood’s than Lars von Trier’s, Cecil is clearly the movie’s ultimate false prophet. But Waters, whose humor is inextricably caustic and sweet-natured, has decidedly mixed feelings about his anti-hero. He gives Cecil the ability to rescue Honey from her dead-end career and to reinvent her as a Divine-ish indie goddess. But he also condemns Cecil to wide-eyed lunacy, dressing him in a straight jacket and likening his obsession with movies to a sexual fetish. (While hijacking the set of the Forrest Gump sequel, Cecil stops to lick the Panavision label on a film blimp.) Resting somewhere between self-referential nostalgia and camp satire, Cecil B. DeMented plays like a John Waters film about the John Waters phenomenon. It’s always trashy and occasionally clever, but Waters’ ambivalence towards Cecil and what he stands for ultimately blunts his comedic rapier.

Boasting a mid-'90s techno-funk score and retro-'60s art direction, Cecil B. DeMented creates a Baltimore that never was: a pan-temporal wasteland where hippie culture mixes casually with generation Y hostility. In their dankly cluttered hideaway below a derelict theater, the Sprockets embrace the former, partaking of drugs, satanic rituals, and free (sexless) love. Only outside their lair do they don their cameras and boom mikes, like so much battle gear, and set about disrupting multiplexes and studio-sponsored luncheons, filming it all in hand-held cinema verite. Their schizoid nature exposes the fundamental bogusness of their movement -- a point which Waters goes to great lengths to prove again and again. How many times do we have to watch Cecil rave about the deplorable state of cinema while his flunkies snort cocaine or engage in mock fornication? The Sprocket Holes are a hybrid bunch, a contrived anachronism. They encompass so many different identities, there’s no room left for their own.

Cecil fancies himself a great filmmaker, or at least an interesting one. He certainly has enthusiasm. Seized with cinematic "visions," he forces Honey to jump off a building into a crowd of oyster-slurping studio execs; later, he persuades her to set fire to her own hair for the climactic scene of his chef d’oeuvre. Invariably someone ruins his set-ups ("Hey, that’s Honey Whitlock!") but he keeps shooting, undeterred, convinced somehow that he’s making a great movie. His followers are equally clueless, following him blindly into a hail of bullets. Too bad no one has the heart to tell him how awful they are -- not even Waters. They are more in love with the idea of guerilla filmmaking than with the result. And maybe Waters is too. Had he endowed them with more intelligence, they would have been lovable. But their stupidity keeps getting in the way of our sympathy.

At the very least, Waters has assembled a game cast. As Honey, Melanie Griffith puts her dubious reputation to good use. Her vapid line readings are pitch-perfect, at once painfully grating and self-consciously hammy. She may be playing herself, but when she bleaches her hair and smears on the eye-liner, she morphs into that Waters kind of gal: part drag-queen, part floozy, part avenging angel. Dorff, a smart actor, clearly feels uneasy playing the problematic, dumb Cecil, but his reliable Kubrickian smirk serves him well. And as Cherish, an ex-porn star, Alicia Witt has a lot of fun recounting a Christmas when her entire family gang-banged her.

With his feelings about indie filmmakers unresolved, Waters must rely on demonizing various Hollywood institutions to generate any kind of comic momentum. It’s a cop-out (who doesn’t hate Jack Valenti?), but Waters and company get a lot of mileage out of it. Probably the most surreal and oddly satisfying moment occurs when Cecil, Honey and the Sprocket Holes are fleeing some studio-hired hitmen. Cornered, they duck into a cinema playing a kung-fu marathon. Cecil, desperate and out of moves, appeals to the audience’s sense of underground brotherhood, and rallying around his war cry, the kung-fu fans attack the studio goons with a flurry of fists, round-house kicks and Bruce Lee shrieks. It’s a divinely inspired moment for a director whose affinity for filth sometimes clouds his better judgement.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]