In his latest film, Cecil B. Demented, John Waters appears to be turning the camera on the movie making industry, examining the difference between mainstream and independent cinema. In actuality, he's turning the camera on himself. Waters, who was once the definition of cutting edge, has been eclipsed by the very industry he defined himself against. He must feel he has nowhere to go. Renowned for films like Pink Flamingos, Polyester, and Hairspray, Waters has painted himself right into a corner and instead of creating brilliant satire, he contrives a direct-to-video, cable-esque sequel.
Stephen Dorff plays the title character, a guerilla bandleader of cinematic misfits who's determined to bring his vision to the screen, regardless of consequences. As film insiders, each cult member has the name of their favorite director tattooed on his arm. He and his randy renegades, the Sprocket Holes, orchestrate a kidnapping of a major Hollywood icon, Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith). The Sprocket Holes have infiltrated a benefit that Honey is attending, and they execute a finely devised plan that establishes great expectations for the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, the movie Cecil hopes to make has no plot and its only purpose is to topple the Hollywood establishment.
Lame scenarios ensue, including chase scenes with angry teamsters, comrade in arms assistance from porn and kung-fu aficionados, and a host of anti-establishment clichés.
Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped in the 70s by the Symbionese Liberation Army, makes a cameo appearance in the movie as a mother of one of the Sprockets. Like the fictional character of Honey Whitlock, Hearst was once brainwashed and transformed into believing in the cause.
In a wink wink, nudge nudge filmic gesture, Cecil B. Demented often widens his eyes in a Charles Manson "demented" manner. As promising as the first 15 minutes of the film's premise may be, Waters implodes every hope of redemption after the second 15 minutes. The idea of using Hollywood stars to headline a no-budget production was executed with élan in the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy vehicle, Bowfinger. Before that, Altman did a masterful job with slightly more serious fare in The Player. And Ed Wood traversed somewhat similar ground - filmmaking for the sheer joy of filmmaking - played for both poignancy and laughs.
But this is a parody of a parody of a parody.
A great mimic like Jim Carrey might, just might be able to pull this off, but unfortunately Waters flies his amateur colors with a bit too much pride. Self-deprecating humor is fun; poorly executed mockery is not.
Waters has always embraced a junkyard set design with its old movie posters. Cecil and the Sprocket Hole cult live in an old abandoned theatre called the Hippodrome. This junkyard/playhouse ends up looking like a bad film about MTV's Real World. To Waters' credit, however, he does throw in a few sight gags to keep some levity to the proceedings. Theatre marquees are frequently shown in the background and are always worth reading.
Melanie Griffith is perfectly cast as the spoiled Honey Whitlock. The role calls for her high voice and a certain willingness to go along for the ride just for the thrill. Occasionally, you can see her giggle at the young actors as they recite their lines and perform bizarre tasks. She is an outsider in Waters' world, just as Honey Whitlock is to Demented's world.
Waters simply can't sustain the uproarious energy throughout the film and like Cecil B. Demented's movie within a movie, it feels made up as they go along.
Children may be able to pull this off playing dress up in the back yard in summertime, but to see adults attempt this is unsightly. It doesn't feel spontaneous, it feels like bad improvisational dinner theater. As the story progresses, the episode becomes more amateurish and overly dramatic, until it all goes up in flames, literally and figuratively.
Cecil B. Demented is only slightly amusing and mostly embarrassing. Instead of lampooning himself, Waters covers old ground and becomes Cecil B. Dementia, a cartoon of a caricature of a once inventive and innovative filmmaker.
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