It's official: Mainstream John Waters is weirder than underground John Waters. "Serial Mom," his latest and one of his best, is like an early '60s TV sitcom that keeps lunging into profane naughtiness. Waters builds our disbelief of shows like "Leave It to Beaver" and "Ozzie and Harriet" right into the movie; he animates our fantasies of what these spic-and-span people might really be like.
He also builds into "Serial Mom" the no-brained affection we have for those shows. Waters, like David Lynch, can't truly be called a subversive filmmaker or a satirist because he shares most of the middle-class values he pokes. That's why he's a naughty black comic and not an enraged one. Deep down he wishes life were like "Leave It to Beaver."
But in the meantime there's the real world of serial murders and mania to contend with. Waters' conceit in "Serial Mom" is to give us a June Cleaver type--Kathleen Turner's Beverly Sutphin--who is also a serial murderer on the sly.
She's not the usual predator, though. Even though she cherishes her shoe box filled with tapes from Ted Bundy and letters from Richard Speck, her rampages are almost always in defense of her family--her meek dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston) and daughter Misty (Ricki Lake), who is having boyfriend trouble, and son Chip (Matthew Lillard), who works in a video store and has a yen for ultra-gore films. She's a valiant fantasy Mom--the kind of Mother Courage who will impale her daughter's no-good boyfriend with a lance and leave his liver flapping; or run down the high school math teacher who foolishly suggests her son's gore fixation could do with a bit of therapy. Make no mistake: This is a pro-family values film.
Part of the fun in "Serial Mom" is seeing what sets Beverly off. It's usually not what you expect. (After the law catches up with her, at her trial, a juror played by Patty Hearst is seen wearing white shoes after Labor Day--a fashion no-no for Beverly of homicide-inducing proportions.)
Those '60s sitcom mothers were all-of-a-piece with the TV commercial housewives who were (and still are) forever fretting over household odors and spots. Beverly carries that fretting to its nut-brain conclusion: She's so hemmed in by her chirpy PTA-and-cornflakes life that even the slightest deviations drive her wild. (She's like a campier female version of Terry O'Quinn's serial murderer husband in "The Stepfather" who couldn't abide any cracks in his sitcom comfiness.) Waters gets at the freakiness inside all that peachy-keen rigor.
"Serial Mom" is also a jab at the supposed uplift provided by "wholesome" TV shows and movies. With all the ruckus raised in the media about the harmful effects of on-screen violence and sex, "Serial Mom" weighs in for the other side: It implies that it's the antiseptic family entertainments that may have done us the real harm. The real nut cases in the movie aren't the hormonally inflamed teen-agers and avenging matriarchs. It's the suburban Baltimore do-gooders, the upright judges and deacons--you know, the pillars of society.
Kathleen Turner jump-started her stardom as a film noir femme fatale in "Body Heat" but her Garbo-esque smokiness and throaty come-hithers always camouflaged a wicked comic gift. As the hit woman in "Prizzi's Honor," her infatuated deadpan was hilariously apt; in her funniest role, in the neglected "The Man With Two Brains," she zigged to Steve Martin's every zag. (Quite a feat.)
Turner is one of those actresses who always seems partially zonked--fogged in by her own self-absorption. But she's smart enough to play around with her zonkiness. In "Serial Mom," Beverly's avidity for wasting the opposition is so furiously funny that you can see why she can't stop herself--she's having way too much fun. It's the joy that comes from clearing the air and clobbering complacencies.
Waters indulges in a few too many cute tricks, such as periodically flashing the date and time of the action on the screen, "Law & Order"-style, and sometimes his mimicking of straight-arrow TV shows is too close for comfort to the shows themselves. But this double-image effect is part of what makes "Serial Mom" distinctive. It's not just Waters' riff on old TV sitcoms. It's also his ode to those shows.
The movie also probably comes closer to how we actually relate to the current wave of serial carnage than a lot of the more "serious" fare. Waters plays it as giddy black comic vaudeville, and that connects up with our helplessness. The joke in this movie is that killers attract stardom and groupies and have TV movies made about them. (Beverly's life will be re-enacted by Suzanne Somers.) It is, of course, a real-life joke.
It's not that Waters set out to make a social statement here. It's just that the landscape and his mindscape turn out to be a perfect fit.
God help us all.
* MPAA rating: R, for satirical presentation of strong violence, vulgar language and sexual episodes. Times guidelines: It includes many obscenities and graphic, though comic, murders.
Kathleen Turner: Beverly Sutphin
Sam Waterston: Eugene Sutphin
Ricki Lake: Misty Sutphin
Matthew Lillard: Chip Sutphin
A Savoy release of a Polar Entertainment production. Director John Waters. Producers John Fiedler and Mark Tarlov. Executive producer Joseph Caracciolo. Screenplay John Waters. Cinematographer Robert Stevens. Editors Janice Hampton, Erica Huggins. Costumes Van Smith. Music Basil Poledouris. Production design Vincent Peranio. Set director Susan Kessel. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
* Exclusive engagement beginning today at AMC Century 14 Century City, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 553-8900. In general release starting Friday throughout Southern California.