Sunday, March 1, 2009

Serial Mom

“I haven’t gone mainstream,” insisted John Waters. “Critics have been saying that about every movie I’ve made since Pink Flamingos. But the shock value is still there in Serial Mom. I just tried to make it funny, that’s all.”

Waters is the Baltimore-based bad boy of schlock and shock who has directed such outrageous underground movies as Pink Flamingos, Mondo Trasho and Female Trouble. With his slight build, pencil-thin mustache and slicked-down hair, Waters resembles Gomez Addams’ twin brother. His dapper, but demented, appearance fits his movies, which are infamous for their black humor and scatological content. The doggie-do ending of Pink Flamingos still registers as one of the grossest images ever filmed. It was a barf-fest gesture that succinctly sums up his early work.

“I’m not going to do suicidal things to my career,” said Waters during a recent telephone interview. And he hasn’t. His work still plays like Beaver Cleaver’s nightmare, but Waters has successfully moved from the midnight movie circuit to the mall theaters with a surprising amount of his over-the-top material intact. Serial Mom is Waters’ third so-called Hollywood film – after Cry Baby and Hairspray – and it may be his wittiest movie. He’s made the major move to full-blown satire, and is once again proving to be the finest – and most caustic – social critic around.

Faster and funnier than many of Waters’ previous movies, Serial Mom offers a warped tale about a suburbanite mother who slaughters half of her neighborhood. It’s a hysterically funny and accurate send-up of the modern fascination with family-style blood-shed, the dark underlining to the “family values” propaganda that’s taken the airwaves hostage.

“The other night, they were broadcasting the first of the TV movies being made about the Menendez brothers,” noted Waters. “Right in the middle of the program was an ad for Serial Mom. Which in a way is fine. It makes it easier for people to appreciate my movie.”

This blurry no-man’s land between fantasy and reality is the exact spot where Serial Mom cuts loose. Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston play the heads of a family that has achieved the domestic bliss of sit-coms and TV ads. Their marriage is happy and sexually fulfilling, and their kids (Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard) are generally well-adjusted. It’s the petty rudeness of the rest of the world that Turner’s character has trouble dealing with.

“Every single person she killed deserved it,” said Waters with a twinkle. “And besides, with the exception of her bad habit of murdering people, she’s actually a very loving and supportive mother.”

And that’s one of the best jokes in Serial Mom. Turner plays a maternal monster, but she’s so good with her own family that you almost wish she were your mother. So what if she’s capable of cracking a person’s head open with a leg of lamb? She’s also genuinely nice.

Serial Mom greatly benefits from Turner’s best performance in years. She has a manic quality that operates on the same crazy wave-length as the movie, despite Time magazine’s recent assertion that she originally turned the part down because it was too disgusting. But Waters insists the story isn’t true: “She just had to sleep on it before she could make up her mind.”

As crucial as Turner’s performance is, it’s Waters own bizarre sensibility that keeps Serial Mom tottering brilliantly on the razor sharp line between comedy and mayhem. He’s a self-confessed fan of famous criminals, and has traveled across the country to attend various infamous trials. It was at her own trial that he met Patty Hearst, who co-stars in Serial Mom and is a friend of Waters.

“What can I say?” he shrugged. “My interest in these things started with the villains in Walt Disney movies, moved onto the writings of Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs, and then progressed to Richard Speck” (the infamous mass murderer of student nurses on Chicago in the 1960s, whose picture appears as a pin-up poster in Serial Mom).

Waters has a shrewd sense of the contradictions that exist between American pop culture and our society’s professed notions of morality. He’s also serious about his stand against capital punishment, though he deftly presses the issue in Serial Mom by taking the opposing side of the argument to its logically absurd extreme.

Despite what his films may suggest, Waters isn’t really crazy. “But I’ve grown fond of my neuroses,” he confessed. “Thank god I have the outlet of my movies.”

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