Boundaries of bad taste are meant to be broken, and director John Waters has done his part over the years, most notably with 1972's infamous "Pink Flamingos" and its promotional "filthiest people alive" competition. A decade later, Waters asked viewers of "Polyester" to scratch and sniff cards (handed out at the door) that emitted a variety of often revolting fragrances. He's all but gone Hollywood in the '90s with the musical satire of "Cry-Baby" and dark comedy of "Serial Mom."
"Pecker," the quirky tale of a Baltimore photographer's rise to glory, has Waters pushing the buttons of the squeamish again as the title lensman captures full-frame images of rats copulating and a stripper's pubic hair. Those low-art moments are secondary to the same old message the director/writer has been preaching since his debut feature, 1969's "Mondo Trasho," was delayed midproduction when Waters and two actors were arrested for indecent exposure. It's a screwy sermon of tolerance that goes something like this: Freaks are people, too.
The normalcy-challenged individuals in "Pecker" are as goofy and entertaining as ever. Pecker, played with a sunny optimism by Edward Furlong ("Terminator 2: Judgment Day"), endlessly photographs friends, family members and neighbors in all their lovable blue-collar squalor. His girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci) is a Laundromat manager who obsesses over the destructive deeds customers might commit when she isn't watching their every move. Matt (Brendan Sexton II), the photographer's assistant and best friend, gets his kicks from shoplifting.
Pecker's sweet but dim mom (Mary Kay Place) practically gives away clothes at her thrift shop, and his dad (Mark Joy) is the inept owner of a struggling bar. Big sister Tina (Martha Plimpton) is a ditzy barmaid at a gay go-go club, while Little Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey) is a slobbering sugar freak. Memama (Jean Schertler), the matriarch of the clan, sells pit beef sandwiches and owns a statue of the Virgin Mary that not so mysteriously "talks."
Pecker, nicknamed for his picky eating habits, rapidly finds favor for his blunt, realistic black-and-white photographs. He soon gains fame in the New York art world, thanks to the efforts of Rorey (Lili Taylor), an agent with more than successful representation on her to-do list. Soon enough, Pecker is having to choose between his steady girl and his seductive new friend -- and between the New York high life and a more familiar existence in Baltimore.
The irresistible lure of fame emerges as the dominant theme. Maybe that's Waters' story, too. He could have split Baltimore for Los Angeles, but he opted to stay where he was. He might have abandoned edgy material and limited budgets for more mainstream stories and big-studio amenities, but he followed the lead of his own wayward muse. Who makes those kind of choices these days?