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Cecil B. Demented

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/27/06 20:15:44

"No fuckin' call sheets, yo."
5 stars (Awesome)

The day a John Waters film gets unanimous raves is probably the day Waters should retire and take up golf, so it was very good news in 2000 that his spray of Mace in the face of good taste, "Cecil B. DeMented," got slammed left and right.

The movie seemed to annoy two different kinds of critics: those who never liked Waters anyway, and those who loved Waters' early outrages (Pink Flamingos, Polyester) and feel he's mellowed to the detriment of his humor. I'm the third kind of critic -- the kind that's willing to follow Waters wherever he goes. And in Cecil B. DeMented he takes us on his most consistently funny ride since Hairspray.

The movie is a loving nudge in the ribs of the director Waters used to be: a guerrilla auteur with a motley cast and crew of loyal outcasts and weirdos. This film and Waters' previous comedy Pecker, about a young photographer who hits it big when the New York art scene discovers his grungy work, are companion pieces about outlaw artists who, instead of tailoring their work to the masses, stay true to what they love and wait for the masses to come to them. In other words, autobiographical. The only difference is that this film's rabid protagonist, the underground filmmaker calling himself "Cecil B. DeMented" (Stephen Dorff), won't wait for the masses or cater to them -- he prefers to attack them.

Cecil, who loathes mainstream Hollywood fare, kidnaps bland movie star Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) and forces her to act in the cinematic smash-and-grab guerrilla effort he's putting together -- a sort of movie manifesto in which Honey and her "co-stars" barrel through a number of public shrines to Hollywood (a multiplex, a press conference welcoming a Hollywood film crew to Baltimore) and trash everything, screaming such slogans as "Punish bad cinema!" When you get a glimpse of one such example of bad cinema -- Patch Adams: The Director's Cut, playing to a sniffling multiplex audience -- you sort of see their point.

As always, Waters works with an unmistakable affection for even his grubbiest characters. Cecil's band of cinema terrorists, the "Sprocket Holes," include a gay redneck driver (Mike Shannon), a Satanist make-up artist (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a producer of questionable gender (Harriet Dodge), a porno actress (Alicia Witt in the stand-out performance, livelier and funnier than anyone in Boogie Nights), a hairdresser who's straight but wishes he were gay (Jack Noseworthy), a butch director of photography (Erika Lynn Rupli), a sexually repressed mama's boy (Eric M. Barry), a production designer (Larry Gilliard Jr.) with "David Lynch" tattooed on his knuckles, a sound techie (Zenzele Uzoma) whose boom mike doubles as a gun, and a leading man (Adrian Grenier) who's glad he's a drug addict because "before, I had so many problems; now I only have one problem."

The haughty star Honey soon fits right in with this manic Manson family of filmmakers; perhaps their sincerity about the purity of cinema touches some part of her she'd thought Hollywood had killed years ago. (Griffith, playing this star whose career mirrors hers in some ways, comes through with a deft self-parodying turn that simultaneously lets us see how Honey becomes a true Cecil B. DeMented star and how Griffith becomes a John Waters star.) The movie takes many potshots at the idiocies of Hollywood, but if it's not as biting as some people want it to be, that's because a large part of Waters loves Hollywood (he's gushed in print over Randal Kleiser, the director of Grease and The Blue Lagoon). He loves both art films and outlandishly corny Hollywood melodramas. You're not meant, I think, to take Cecil or his slogans all that seriously. Waters pokes fun at the cinema rebels as much as the Hollywood hacks.

Cecil B. DeMented is a further exploration of Waters' true theme -- not shock for its own sake (the grossest things here are people forced to eat oysters at gunpoint, and a gerbil going where no gerbil was meant to go), but obsession. Waters adores single-minded people, and Cecil and his Sprocket Holes are nothing if not dedicated to their loopy cause. Despite the title, though, it's really Honey's story -- her arc from a star who doesn't care to a guerrilla actress who does -- and during the climax (set at a drive-in, a nod to one more dearly departed movie tradition) Waters gives her a send-off worthy of creakiest Old Hollywood.

"Cecil B. DeMented" is vintage John Waters, which means it doesn't have a chance in hell of winning the mass audience that wept over "Patch Adams." And thank God for that.

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