Cecil B. DeMented
Director: John Waters. Cast: Stephen Dorff, Melanie Griffith, Alicia Witt, Patty Hearst, Ricki Lake, Kevin Nealon. Screenplay: John Waters.


So far, Cecil B. DeMented is my favorite horrible movie of the year. If Hollywood were a talent show, I would clap for John Waters, because I'd be worried no one else was going to, and even though it seems pretty clear he's out of whatever ideas he used to have, I am happy the guy is making movies. Cecil B. DeMented pretty much runs right into the ground on all fronts: the acting is amateurish, the photography is stunningly ugly, and even the concept is not as funny as Waters seems to think. Or maybe he realizes the concept itself might be funny, even though he never manages in 90 minutes to put that concept persuasively or even amusingly on screen. The movie does almost nothing right. You don't pick on John Waters, though, because he's a wonderfully witty commentator on the state of cinema when he isn't actually trying to make cinema himself, and when you are watching his films, you get the sense he didn't know any better.

The plot of Cecil B. DeMented, such as it is, involves the guerrilla tactics of some movie theater employees in Baltimore who are disgusted by the movies to which they sell tickets. The cleverest moments in the movie are without all question the opening credits, which are superimposed on decrepit theater marquees that alternately feature nightmare sequels (Lake Placid 2, The Postman 2) or high-concept Hollywood blunders (Les Enfants du Paradis "Finally Dubbed in English!"—a double sacrilege/joke since, as you may know, the major characters in Les Enfants du Paradise are mimes). The state of rage to which the teenage cinéastes have ascended drives them to hijack their theater on the night of an improbable gala premiere in Baltimore, for a new movie starring Oscar-nominated starlet Honey Whitlock, played by Melanie Griffith in one of those twilight-of-her-career, "I'm laughing with John Waters so I won't cry by myself" roles that Kathleen Turner patented in 1994's Serial Mom. When the bandits have Honey in their clutches, their leader, Cecil B. DeMented himself, forces her to star in a production of their own devising, a sort of snuff film in which not people but movies are killed: the coups de théātres include sabotages of Patch Adams: The Director's Cut and the set of Forrest Gump 2: Gump Again, starring Kevin Nealon.

The biggest problem with Cecil B. DeMented, though it's hard to assert that its heart's not in the right place, is that its head is nowhere to be found. The film that Cecil and his henchpeople are constructing is even more laborious to watch than the movies they are meant to replace. Whatever good lines or moments they have are confined to their warehouse/rehearsal space, but we don't care about what these folks do in their offtime. All we need to know about these folks is that they hate Hollywood product; why can't Waters find away to make their retaliatory project more spunky? It's possible, at least for a little while, that Waters intends the banal aimlessness of Cecil's opus to make his own picture an equal-opportunity attack: maybe Waters thinks the latter-day "watershed" of indie films can be just as shrill, convention-bound, and spiritless as the more heavily financed white elephants made in Hollywood. After all, the man would have a point. For two reasons, though, we can't really allow Waters this escape hatch. First, if he is indicting cinema at all levels, then Cecil B. DeMented has no focus as a satire, and merely vandalizes the entire medium of film without anything to offer as an alternative.

Second, Cecil B. DeMented flubs so many of its details that it's impossible to imagine that its larger structure has survived intact. No one onscreen seems to be having much fun skewering whatever it is they're skewering. Stephen Dorff, as Cecil, can't provide the wattage to make the character a lively enough nutjob. Even Griffith can't stitch a few tart line-readings into a compelling excuse for her appearance in this film. She doesn't totally flop, but we watch her flailing for most of her weak laughs, which is like watching a naked person try to cover herself with bits of windblown kleenex. Besides, can we really take the star of Two Much and Working Girl seriously as the dowager empress of challenging, nonformulaic movies, which is eventually what the role demands? Waters needed a comic actress with enough credibility in either the studio or indie systems to make her stance anything but desperate. Griffith lacks both.

Since it depresses me to record what a flop Cecil turned out to be—the occasional fringe laughs dissipate quickly and defy the memory entirely—I prefer to emphasize the positive and chronicle one of John Waters' most pungent public statements of late. On the subject of people who have rented his movies and afterward prosecuted them as obscene, Waters recently told Elvis Mitchell of the Independent Film Channel, "Why didn't they just turn [the movies] off? I didn't call the cops when Forrest Gump started running." That one-liner is infinitely more rewarding than the entire Gump sequence in Waters' film—and that sequence is probably the film's best. I wish there were a way to preserve Waters as a vocal Hollywood presence without allowing him to make any of his statements through art. I'm intent on catching his next televised interview, but I'm just as certain to skip his next film. C–


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