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‘Serial Mom’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 15, 1994

THERE ARE ABOUT 15 minutes of laughs in "Serial Mom." That's a decent score for a comedy by anyone else, but this is a John Waters movie. We've come to expect more from Baltimore's own king of kitsch, the pope of puke.

The outre auteur starts with a one-joke idea -- a comedy about a serial killer -- that's worth only a chuckle to begin with, then re-visits familiar themes -- bloodthirsty pop culture, crime and glamour, the meanness and perversity behind smug, censorious middle-class surfaces -- that Waters handled definitively 20 years ago in "Female Trouble." "Serial Mom" is offensively tame and almost (gasp) tasteful.

The movie begins with a deadpan disclaimer: "This film is a true story . . . no one involved in the crimes received any kind of financial compensation." The camera descends from the clouds, into the azalea-choked suburbs of Baltimore and the magazine-perfect kitchen of Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner), who is sunnily serving up cereal to her kids Misty and Chip.

After Chip utters an expletive at the table, she reprimands him, "You know how I hate the brown word."

She's the perfect mom. Perkier than Donna Reed. More wholesome than June Cleaver. More concerned than Carol Brady. Then the police arrive.

Waters retraces the odd odyssey of this cereal-pourer-turned-serial killer in flashback, as Turner is called in for a parent-teacher conference about gore-obsessed Chip.

"We're a loving and supportive family," she protests, politely. "Well you're doing something wrong," snipes the teacher.

Next thing you know, Mom is backing the family station wagon over the teacher in the school parking lot (in a familiar Waters gross-out touch, bloody chewing gum pops out of the victim's mouth). Then she blithely heads for the car wash and home to make the perfect meatloaf.

After Mom snaps, she turns her penchant for well-meaning murder toward anyone who offends her meticulous standards. Humming Barry Manilow tunes through a grimace, she whacks neighbors who don't recycle, who scoff at seat-belt laws, who wear white heels after Labor Day, who enjoy the musical "Annie" and don't rewind their rented videotapes . . .

As she goes to trial -- choosing to defend herself -- Turner becomes an instant celebrity, and even a feminist heroine.

"You're bigger than Freddie and Jason," says her son, admiringly.

Waters spoils his own joke by giving the game away too fast. Turner looks deranged and dangerous from the beginning, and by the time her husband discovers her secret cache of tapes from Ted Bundy and pen-pal letters from Richard Speck, the gag's already worn pretty thin. And the murders themselves -- Turner clubs one woman with a leg of lamb -- are unforgivably unfunny, almost an afterthought. The real world has caught up with him, and his off-kilter comedy seems disappointingly mundane and mainstream.

Waters is the George Cukor of bad girls and white-trash women, and directing his first real movie star, he gets a rise out of the recently dormant Kathleen Turner. She's a real sport, whether briskly making obscene phone calls or impaling her daughter's boyfriend while he stands at a urinal.

As usual with Waters, "Serial Mom" is a veritable outlet mall of demi-celebrities and off-brand stars. Besides Turner, the title credits boast Sam Waterston, pre-diet Ricki Lake (who, as Misty, bats her eyes at a cute cop as her boyfriend is being zipped up in a body bag), ex-porn star Traci Lords, Patty Hearst and Suzanne Somers. Only a few of Waters's beloved ensemble of downtown Baltimore grotesques show up -- Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, Mary Vivian Pearce -- but their appearances are nostalgically pungent. SERIAL MOM (R) -- Area theaters.

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