If John Waters' last few gentler and (slightly) more commercial movies ("Pecker," "Serial Mom," "Cry-Baby") had his fans thinking the once-warped director had lost his edge, that perhaps he was inching toward mainstream repeatability, they need not fear. It was all a ruse.
It seems Waters was only lulling the cinematic establishment into a false sense of security so he could turn around and bite them in the ass with "Cecil B. Demented," a hilarious -- and very much old-school John Waters -- anti-blockbuster romp that chews up and spits out the kind of pandering Hollywood conventions that to toothless, cookie-cutter box office hits.
Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff), you see, is an independent filmmaker of the purest order. His goal: cinematic revolution by any means necessary. If that includes kidnapping one Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), Hollywood's biggest spoiled bitch/aging bimbo star, and forcing her at gun point to play a lead in his guerilla movie about celluloid terrorists (much like himself), so be it.
If that mean invading screenings of "Patch Adams: The Director's Cut" and attacking the set of "Gump Again" starring Kevin Nealon as Forrest Gump, so much the better. And get it all on film!
Waters is clearly having a ball living vicariously through this picture, taking pot shots at the studio machine while being utterly self-mocking -- or at least art-film mocking -- at the same time. It cannot be an accident that Cecil lives by a seat-of-the-pants credo similar to the Domge 95 rules recently toyed with by a collective of rebellious Dutch filmmakers led by Lars Von Trier ("The Idiots," "Breaking the Waves").
Letting his cast run amok Waters lends the movie a genuine -- if ignoble -- spirit of spontaneity. Sporting a peroxide do, a straight jacket, a riding crop, and some seriously buggy eyes, Dorff blazes his way through "Cecil" gnawing on scenery with a glint of mad moxie. He frequently busts out in exaggerated, egomaniacal monologues about motion picture purity. "The first take is the only truth!" he barks, blood vessels throbbing on his forehead.
Griffith -- who has suddenly become a good actress -- is also game for anything in her role as Honey. She throws diva tantrums, abuses her personal assistant (a mousy Ricki Lake) for her own amusement and, after her kidnapping, tries to pull rank on Cecil by complaining about his script. His response: An electroshock therapy reprimand. ZAP! "There are no creative differences on a Cecil B. Demented film!"
The movie is certainly flawed, if for no other reason than that Waters' budgets have outgrown his trashy tastes. The movie just looks too polished for all its clumsy, screwball scripting and deliberately ham-fisted acting.
Waters' structure is uneven too, with most film-terrorism episodes assembled in seemingly random order. Many of the characters are underdeveloped or under-motivated (Honey's Patty Hearst-style transition from captive to collaborator isn't terribly convincing). And sometimes the movie seems both forced (we meet Cecil's nutcase disciples in a tiresome roll-call scene) and oddly over-produced (his abandon theater hideout looks like the Broadway set of "Stomp!").
Yet for all its shortcomings, "Cecil B. Demented" is intoxicating, impudent fun for anyone with a healthy loathing for Hollywood's profit-driven pandering to the lowest common denominator. And Waters has a seemingly endless supply of incisive industry in-gags. Personal favorites include Cecil passionately licking the Panaflex logo on his camera and a scene with Teamsters chasing Cecil's crew off a back lot screaming "Get their 16mm asses!" Even the title music is something of barb as 1930s-style scoring battles for dominance with a hip-hop beat.
Everything about "Cecil B. Demented" just screams the fact that Waters delighted in taking studio money, then snubbing his nose at the system and returning to his roots in irreverent absurdity.
Welcome home, John.
Run time: 87 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 2nd August 2000
Distributed by: Artisan Entertainment
Production compaines: Artisan Entertainment, Artic Productions LLC
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 52%
Fresh: 41 Rotten: 38
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: John Waters
Starring: Melanie Griffith as Honey Whitlock, Stephen Dorff as Cecil, Alicia Witt as Cherish, Adrian Grenier as Lyle, Lawrence Gilliard Jr. as Lewis, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Raven, Jack Noseworthy as Rodney, Mink Stole as Mrs. Sylvia Mallory, Ricki Lake as Libby, Michael Shannon as Petie, Kevin Nealon as Kevin