Monday, February 23, 2015

Cecil B. Demented (2000)

Very funny satire from John Waters skewering both the shallowness of Hollywood and the clichéd pretensions of guerilla/underground filmmakers. The premise involves a group of "cinema terrorists" called The Sprocket Holes who kidnap an A-list Hollywood movie star and force her to perform in their underground film, in which they rage against the Hollywood machine.

The satire here is more on-point and biting than in Waters' rather genial and tepid kidding of the New York art world in PECKER. Its characters are also less sweet and good-natured, but they're also a lot more fun to spend time with. Cecil B. Demented, the self-proclaimed "ultimate auteur", is played by Stephen Dorff in an incredible tour-de-force performance that never misses a beat, and he plays the part with the perfect amount of conviction, which makes the wildly over-the-top dialogue he's given all the funnier. He's supported by a fine cast including Alicia Witt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Adrian Grenier, and many others who are given highly eccentric, richly-defined characters that they can really sink their teeth into. Melanie Griffith does a splendid job in her caricature of the self-centered, spoiled movie star, and convincingly portrays her transformation to cult celebrity when she realizes her career is quickly fading. Griffith really gets into the spirit of the absurd proceedings, and it is her performance that holds the film together.

Waters certainly seems to identify with Cecil and his merry band of cinematic misfits (they have the names of directors such as Warhol, Kenneth Anger, William Castle, and others tattooed on themselves), but he also presents them as ludicrously misguided in their crusade against Hollywood, such as the moment when Cecil admonishes his crew not to sully their talents with financial success, their taking vows of "celibacy for celluloid" until the film is finished, and their rather limp, pathetic climactic showdown against the police and moviegoers at the Bengies' Drive-in, in which the remaining members of the gang celebrate the wrap of their film by immediately having sex in front of the stunned crowd. Waters seems to be taking digs at those who take the idea of cinematic revolution a little too seriously.

Waters gets in some great digs at the local film scene, too, especially in the scenes with Cecil and his gang kidnapping Griffith at a fundraiser event being held at the Senator Theater, infiltrating a Maryland Film Commission luncheon at Harborplace, and creating chaos on the set of a fictional filmed-in-Baltimore FORREST GUMP sequel ("Gump Again") starring Kevin Nealon. It's also a lot of fun to see the various local movie theaters, especially the old Hippodrome in its pre-restoration phase. The satire of the movie business circa 2000 is understandably rather dated now (though the jokes about idiotic remakes and ill-conceived high concept pictures are just as relevant as ever), but it also serves as an interesting time capsule of that moment in the late 90s and early 2000s when there was a resurgence of interest in underground/DIY filmmaking.

While it doesn't rank with Waters' best work, it's still a great deal of fun, helped immeasurably by the excellent performances of Griffith and Dorff, mixed together with the outrageous charm of Waters' comic sensibility, and holds up as perhaps the best of his post-SERIAL MOM movies.

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