"Crimes of Passion," a love story about a fix-it man, a fashion designer with a double life, and a maniacal preacher, has got to be the tawdriest, funniest, most visually arresting dirty joke of the year. The film is deeply flawed, and sodden with sexual moralism. But amid Hollywood products pasteurized from demographics and screening groups, the idiosyncratic vision of Ken Russell is a refreshing breath of foul air.
"Crimes of Passion" takes the old Hollywood saw about people being reclaimed by love and dresses it in the popsicle pinks and blues of the red-light district. Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) is a top-notch couturier, but her boss suspects that she's peddling his patterns to a competing sportswear company. So he hires Bobby Grady (John Laughlin), an electrician and sometime industrial spy, to follow her.
What Bobby discovers enraptures him -- designer by day, Joanna is a hooker by night: China Blue, Queen of the Street. Mired in a sexless marriage, Bobby hires China Blue, and their neon-lit night together changes both of them (when you start seeing Magritte paintings before your eyes, you know it's love). Bobby decides to leave his wife, Joanna to cast off her nocturnal self. But the Rev. Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), a carnal clergyman who haunts the whorehouses, won't let her -- in his twisted way, he wants to "save" China Blue.
The movie proceeds with Russell's typical panache: reflections of Turner's face in two makeup mirrors, one magnifying, one not; a horrifying set piece with steel-gray mannequins in an elevator; a fantastic montage as the reverend "murders" an inflatable sex doll. Like the Rick Wakeman score, the script (by Barry Sandler) is switched-on baroque, a wildly stylized skein of double-entendres and smutty one-liners. When China Blue relates how her father once bound her with twine, one customer commiserates, "How low can you get?" To which she responds: "How low can you afford?"
Turner retains the sleekness she laminated onto "Body Heat," with added nuance and style. Her Joanna Crane is a woman frightened of sex, wrapped in a luminous, brittle shell. But in the China Blue role, she's the consummate performer -- "I'm Cinderella, Cleopatra, Goldie Hawn and Eva Braun" -- as she executes a comedic series of skits (a beauty pageant winner, a stewardess, a rape victim, a nun braying "Onward Christian Soldiers") that brilliantly parodies male fantasies.
And Perkins gives the performance of anyone else's career (he'd have to top "Psycho") as the lunatic preacher. Moving seamlessly through a schizo patter that blends Biblical recitation with outrageous profanity, rolling his eyes and flipping his tongue out of his mouth like a lizard angling for flies, Perkins gives a picture of the psychotic that rockets through self-parody into self-transcendence. The genius of Perkins' loonies lies in the engaging innocence he lends to them -- he's every little boy who ever took a magnifying glass and incinerated insects on his back porch.
With such characters, the best parts of "Crimes of Passion" spin out in the exaggerated style of the traditional morality play. The problem is that the caricatures continue in the naturalistic scenes between husband and wife. As Bobby, Laughlin is a blandly good-humored, lantern-jawed Calvin Klein ad of a jock who believes in sex "for each other, instead of to each other." He's Mr. Honesty. His wife, on the other hand (played by the wonderful, kazoo-voiced Annie Potts), is a repressed nag who hates sex and loves Cuisinarts, hot tubs, VCRs and all the other badges of consumer heaven.
The dialogues between these two give "Crimes of Passion" longueurs so drafty you feel like knitting a sweater. And just what Joanna sees in Mr. Honesty is hard to tell -- you can imagine an endlessly boring movie about their subsequent life together. "Crimes of Passion" makes an ideology out of sex-as-therapy -- it's the kind of '60s banality you'd expect the director of "Altered States" to satirize. Who ever thought Ken Russell would end up as Masters and Johnson?
"Crimes of Passion," opening today at area theaters, is rated R. The film contains graphic sex and violence.