Like an aging heavy-metal rocker trying to repackage his once subversive stage act for MTV, director John Waters, creator of the shock-comedy classic Pink Flamingos (1972) and the exuberant satirical teen pic Hairspray (1988), now finds himself in an ironic bind: He’s trying to go mainstream just at the moment the mainstream has caught up with him. His new film, Serial Mom, is about a smiling, apple-cheeked housewife (Kathleen Turner) who is also a knife-wielding psycho, and anyone familiar with the filmmaker’s previous work will recognize his hand not only in the Betty Crocker-from-hell premise but in the kinky Waters touches that dot the movie.
There’s the plastic middle-American setting: Shot, like all of Waters’ films, in his beloved native Baltimore, Serial Mom unfolds in a garish high-camp suburbia where people decorate their homes with Franklin Mint Faberge eggs and a local rummage sale is the hottest event in town. There are the proudly delinquent teenagers, a brattish crew who gorge themselves on blood-dripping horror movies and porn videotapes. There are the cameos by trash celebrities (Traci Lords, Patricia Hearst) and the obligatory Waters gross-outs (Turner stabs someone with a fireplace poker and pulls out his dripping liver). And there’s the theme that has run through Waters’ work for more than two decades: that nothing is more magnetic — more glamorous — than a truly monstrous criminal. In its embrace of all things violent, tacky, and just plain bad, Serial Mom has the earmarks of a vintage John Waters film. Except for one: It’s not very funny. The movie, I’m afraid, plays like Waters’ slightly twisted version of So I Married an Axe Murderer. The most outrageous thing about it is that it isn’t outrageous at all.
It saddens me to say that, since Waters is a filmmaker I’ve long cherished. Though he made his reputation with a gross-out sequence so spectacular it would have gotten a thumbs-up from the Marquis de Sade — at the end of Pink Flamingos, the corpulent transvestite Divine eats a handful of fresh dog doo — there has always been more to Waters’ gleeful trash aesthetic than the lust to shock. His best films are scabrously witty fairy tales driven by the seething, almost psychopathic hostility of their rebel-delinquent characters. They’re screwball comedies gone madly punk.
Serial Mom has traces of Waters’ acid wit, but most of the movie is tame and overly conscious of its naughty felicities. The squeaky-clean Formica-kitchen settings that Waters subverted so nastily in Polyester (1981) seem, by now, a rather tired target for satire. At this point, is there anyone who doesn’t see through this world of neo-’50s homogenization? It has already been parodied to death. And how can we chuckle at teenage characters who rebel by watching sick horror films (which is exactly what ’90s teenagers do) or at a daytime talk-show episode devoted to the girlfriends of serial killers (which sounds exactly like something that would get programmed)? It’s no easy trick lampooning the excesses of a society that now lives under the spell of lurid tabloid sensationalism.
The character who should hold the movie together, of course, is Kathleen Turner’s Beverly Sutphin. Turner performs with chameleonic aplomb, changing, within a few scenes, from a punctilious, too-perfect housewife to a foulmouthed maniac who makes obscene phone calls to a neighbor who dared to steal her parking space. Fanatically straitlaced, Beverly is a mom so obsessed with rules that she goes nuts at the slightest threat of disorder. But this sweet-and-sour flip-flop is all there is to the character. Turner, looking like a cross between Louise Fletcher and Carroll Baker, makes Beverly a convincingly perky cartoon, but she doesn’t summon enough eccentric reserves of personality to triumph over what is essentially a one-joke role. Watching Serial Mom, I realized how much Waters depended on his former star and alter ego, the operatically outrageous Divine (who died in 1988).
The movie climaxes with its liveliest sequence, a retread of the murder-trial episode from Waters’ Female Trouble (1974), which was a dark carnival of homicide and celebrity. Back then, Waters’ fixation on the spooky charisma of mass murderers seemed outre to the max. It’s clear, though, that he was just a few years ahead of the rest of us. And now that we’ve caught up with him, the central joke of Serial Mom works just the opposite of the way it was intended. Instead of wringing laughs from the anarchic spectacle of a mother-turned-murderer, the movie demonstrates that there may not be anything left in our culture — not serial killers, not John Waters — that can’t be domesticated.