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Cecil B. Demented

Artisan Home Video

Starring Stephen Dorff, Melanie Griffith, Alicia Witt

Written and directed by John Waters

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

"But it's a John Waters movie."

That line, whether uttered out loud or not, is perhaps unavoidable when discussing a new release from this edge-pop filmmaker. So are the words "quirky," "indulgent," "darkly humorous," "perverse," "sick" and/or "twisted." All are applicable to the lightweight Waters comedy Cecil B. Demented. Waters has (ironically in this case) his cultgeek followers, as well as those who consider his work mere trash aimed at a vague audience of druggies, pervs, and weirdos. Whether or not you think a John Waters movie is good depends on sensibilities not usually applicable to the work of, say, Spielberg or even Tarantino. As for me, most of Waters' movies leave me in the gray zone between "Oh, please, just get on with it" and "Now there's a unique vision successfully enough placed on the screen for my two hours." Even as satires or social commentaries, his movies don't tend to be about much more than themselves. That's no great sin. I generally find both him and his oeuvre likeable and a small addition to the net good in the universe, but I've never considered him a must-see director or his movies particularly totemic of radical anti-establishment cinema. Call me a John Waters agnostic. So I can see how some hardcore Waters fans consider Cecil B. Demented to be one of his best films, while others come away grumbling that it's one of his weakest.

"I have a fucking vision."

Cecil B. Demented gives us Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff), the obsessed leader of a band of teenaged "outlaw cinema" terrorists willing to live and die by Demented's idealism driving their anti-Hollywood guerilla filmmaking. Together they're a cult worshipping the pantheon of Warhol, Peckinpah, Lynch, Kenneth Anger and other non-mainstream deities. Crowning himself the "enemy of family cinema" and the "ultimate auteur," Demented sets out to prove that nothing — not the establishment, the law, random fatalities, the enforced celibacy of his merry band, or in one scene even the laws of physics — will stop him from completing his "ultimate reality" project, a violence-packed cinema verité thriller called Raving Beauty. To achieve this vision, he coordinates the kidnapping of Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), our easiest stereotype of a waning Tinseltown A-list star: haughty, coarse, self-absorbed, bitchy to the hilt, and pleasant only when "on." Demented forces her to star in their no-budget production. Predictably yet still inexplicably, Whitlock ends up sympathizing with their outlaw cause, becoming one of them and achieving a type of fame her agent never had in mind.

"Death to those who support mainstream cinema!"

Along the way, Waters lampoons mainstream cinema, the cult of celebrity, the forced-conformity Hollywood machine that spoons out treacly crapfilms such as Patch Adams and Forrest Gump, and the self-indulgence of the indie filmmaking scene itself. All worthy targets, no question. But they're also easy and obvious targets, so here's an occasionally labored, self-righteous film with more bark than bite — a bark that grows hoarse in a movie that's at least thirty minutes longer than its story. About two-thirds in I found it too easy to hit Pause, go to the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee, and check my email before returning to the couch and hitting Play again. And the whole thing's only 88 minutes long. Cecil B. Demented feels like a tighter, funnier, and stronger 50-minute short unwisely inflated to fit a feature-length timeslot.

"I haven't had this much fun since my last livestock mutilation."

Among the good are Melanie Griffith playing a cartoon version of the kind of H*o*l*l*y*w*o*o*d S*t*a*r most of us would like to think she is. She's comfortable with the material she's given and the cast of lesser lights she moves among. Dorff is fine but hindered by a character who never even tries to be likeable or sympathetic. Among the misfit filmmakers, Alicia Witt (a "mainstream" talent I hope we'll be seeing plenty more of) is fun as a horny porn actress-cum-terrorist. Familiar Waters players Ricki Lake and Mink Stole remain underused in a cast that feels about four bodies too large, all playing characters with the presence and dimensionality of the Scooby Gang. Everyone has some good lines and plays his or her Type perfectly fine, but again the movie feels diluted because so much is spread so thin.

After opening theme music by Moby that's a witty spoof of mainstream movie music, the soundtrack becomes an mush of watch-me-I'm-hip techno, gangsta rap, and punk.

"Fuck mainstream cinema! Tickets, please."

If you're under 25 and believe in your cute rebel-'til-I-die heart that indie cinema is inherently True Fucking Art that gives the finger to The Man in Hollywood, then Cecil B. Demented may be your masturbatory fantasy. If you're a long-time John Waters fan, be in the mood for "John Waters lite," which isn't necessarily a bad thing (I enjoyed the even lighter Pecker). But if you're a hardcore Waters wank hoping for the "oh my God is that really happening" Pink Flamingos experience, plan to be disappointed.

Still, Cecil gives us "only in a Waters film" dollops such as offscreen (barely) anal sex with a gerbil, a hot young woman receiving a bullet in the forehead during orgasm, self-immolation, male-male fellatio during a police raid in a drive-in theater, Melanie Griffith saying "fuck" a lot, and occasional Waters player Patty Hearst in a story that apes the events of her own outlaw celebrity headlines.

The violence is brief and there's little that's actually gross or shocking, so if you're looking for Divine eating doggie do, this ain't it. If you're looking for Waters trying on new approaches and perhaps growing up a little with his audience, then Cecil is a worthwhile rental.

I mean, hey — it's a John Waters movie.


Artisan Entertainment provides a DVD that delivers Cecil B. Demented in a good anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.

Waters provides the commentary track and seems to have a good time doing it.

We get some amusing production background in Comedy Central's Canned Ham behind-the-scenes special (22 mins.), featuring Waters, Dorff, and Witt as well as Waters' crew regulars Patty Hearst, Mink Stole, Pat Moran, Bob Adams, and Vincent Peranio.

Capping it all are the usual set of theatrical trailers, cast and crew info, and an insert sheet of production notes.

—Mark Bourne

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