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John Waters's Blast at Hollywood Backfires

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2000

   


    'Cecil B. Demented' Stephen Dorff and Melanie Griffigh star in "Cecil B. Demented." (Artisan Entertainment)
"Cecil B. Demented," the latest from infantile Balti-moron John Waters, is an insufferable, self-important, sloppily made bore of a tirade against the trite output of mainstream Hollywood. Waters does have a point, and it's a timely one when you consider the disappointing crop of summer releases. But, alas, he winds up on his own skewer along with the cult-movie conventions he extols.

Waters, renowned and reviled for eccentric films like "Polyester" and "Pink Flamingos," became increasingly conventional himself in the late 1980s. He took Hollywood's money for accessible comedies like "Cry-Baby" and "Serial Mom." And even this latest embarrassing dreck is backed by the mini-studio Artisan.

Maybe it looked good on paper. Maybe the man in charge at the studio was as demented as the picture's title character, played with punishing bravura by Stephen Dorff (of HBO's "Earthly Possessions"). The actor is shrill and wooden, yet clearly crazy. But then he'd have to be: He did agree to take the role of this annoying auteur obsessed with creating no-budget cinema verite.

To that end, Cecil and his crew kidnap Honey Whitlock (pitiable Melanie Griffith), a tiresome diva who visits Baltimore ("a dump of a town") for the premiere of her new movie, "Some Kind of Happiness." The skanky rebels, who have infiltrated the staff of the Senator Theatre, break up the gala and whisk Honey off to their hideout.

At first Honey refuses to cooperate with Cecil. In time, however, she comes to see things his way and joins the armed and dangerous director's terrorist assault on such populist fare as "Forrest Gump" and "Star Wars." The change of heart mirrors the transformation of Patty Hearst during her days as a prisoner of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Hearst herself mocks the experience in a bit part here. Self-deprecating humor is one thing, self-hatred is quite another.

Waters's movie is mean-spirited in general, though one moment stands out. When the frightened kidnap victim refuses to act in the movie he's making, Cecil shocks her with an electric prod. "How's this for motivation?" he demands. You don't find that kind of snappy repartee in movies aimed at just plain folks, or in the offbeat works of Pedro Almodovar, Spike Lee, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, David Lynch and other directors saluted herein.

Waters knocks an old nemesis, the Maryland Film Commission, which in the movie is supporting a Baltimore-made sequel to "Forrest Gump." How dare the panel take pride in bringing big bucks to what used to be Waters's exclusive turf? Of course sequels and remakes are seldom as good as the originals, as the writer-director also points out. Among a handful of amusing touches, he provides a glimpse of a marquee touting " 'Les Enfants du Paradis'--The First Time in English."

He's hardly subtle about his turn-ons and turn-offs, though it's hard to decide how he really feels about Cecil. Is the character a Robin Hood with a Panaflex and an automatic weapon? Or is he merely a pretentious, misguided ass? Judging by his direction and Dorff's ludicrous interpretation, Waters doesn't quite know, either: Cecil B. Demented or Cecil B. Dumb? If you ask me, "Cecil" be damned.

CECIL B. DEMENTED (R, 88 minutes) – Contains crude sexual content, violence, language and drug use

 

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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