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‘Serial Mom’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 15, 1994

"Serial Mom," the latest incarnation of the mad housewife, wears a smile as bright as new counter tops on her pretty milk-fed face. Proud of her meatloaf and the order of her kitchen, she is the model of a perky '60s sitcom mom, a perfect creature who finally cracks under the regimen of her synthetic lifestyle and goes on a suburban killing spree.

A one-joke comedy written and directed by an older, gentler John Waters, the film gets an enormous boost from Kathleen Turner's puckish portrayal of Beverly Sutphin. Essentially, Beverly is June Cleaver with a psychosis brought on by cleaning fumes, coupon-clipping and the enormous challenge of being pleasant to her dentist husband (sappy Sam Waterston) and her teenage children (Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard).

The first hint that Beverly is not okay comes when she slips upstairs to her Martha Stewart-style bedroom to make obscene phone calls to a neighbor (Mink Stole) who stole her parking space. It's the movie's funniest moment, not only because everybody can relate to it, but because the punishment fits the crime. From here on, however, the going is too realistically gory to really be funny, for in even the blackest comedies -- "Eating Raoul," "A Fish Called Wanda" -- many are murdered but none ever bleeds.

But as Beverly becomes ever more incensed by life's little aggravations -- people who don't wear seat belts or do wear white shoes on Labor Day -- the mayhem grows increasingly graphic. She goes from running down her son's math teacher to disemboweling her daughter's former boyfriend. The liver catches on a poker and poor Beverly has the darnedest time shaking it loose. Then there's her son's affection for slasher movies -- actual gut-spilling footage included here.

Of course, Waters, a filmmaker praised for his portrait of a 300-pound transvestite munching poodle poo, has never been known for good taste. But briefly, he seemed to have moved into the mainstream with his camp comedies "Cry-Baby" and "Hairspray." While he has mellowed, he hasn't lost his little boy's love for grossing out the adults in the crowd. Nor, for that matter, has he become any better at developing characters, sustaining plot, editing or any of the other niceties of making movies.

Still, Waters seems to think of "Serial Mom" as a pithy commentary on the violence of our times and the impotence of our judicial system. Beverly, you see, becomes a star when she is arrested and put on trial. Her daughter starts selling souvenirs of the trial, and her son negotiates a contract for the upcoming TV movie with Suzanne Somers (whose collagen-injected lips are the scariest thing in the movie).

"Serial Mom" is rated R for sex and violence.

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