Poor-taste paragon John Waters draws heavily on his unconventional past whenever it's time to devise the satirical thrust of his next feature. In "Hairspray," he paid homage to the televised sock hops that were the staples of his viewing diet in the early 1960s; "Serial Mom" embodied his longstanding hobby as a follower of violent crime. (For decades, Waters has been an enthusiastic spectator at the trials of felons both infamous and obscure.)
That love affair with lawlessness resurfaces in nearly every frame of "Cecil B. DeMented," Waters' latest cinematic "atrocity." But the wild comedy is also a tip of the hat to his days as a guerrilla filmmaker whose hit-and-run shoots were more likely to take him to jail than Cannes. When John Waters gets nostalgic, it's not a pretty sight.
It sure is funny, though. There's more pure enjoyment in "Cecil B." than in any of the bloated blockbusters this paean to the underground eviscerates. (His recent bankability hasn't cured Waters' distaste for Hollywood excess.) Its opening credits include a shot of a theater marquee that advertises the arrival of "Lake Placid 2." Later, we visit the set of "Gump Again," a sequel to "Forrest Gump" that has "Saturday Night Live's" Kevin Nealon (who plays himself) inheriting a park bench sensibly vacated by Tom Hanks.
Superfluous projects like these fuel the rage of Sinclair Stevens (Stephen Dorff), the manager of Baltimore's Senator Theatre. In his off hours, Stevens lives a double life as Cecil B. DeMented, an anarchist director out to destroy the mainstream movie industry.
To advance his fanatical aims, Cecil kidnaps Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), a spoiled-rotten starlet who has arrived in Baltimore for the world premiere of her "screwball romantic comedy," "Some Kind of Happiness." (Her past triumphs, we're told, include "The Big Hurt" and "Forced Entry.") At gunpoint, Cecil spirits Honey away from the film's gala debut at the Senator and into his hidden lair, whose art-deco chaos would be the envy of any guest villain on the old "Batman" TV series. Cecil's plan is to force Honey to star in "Raving Beauty," a no-budget action drama that will be his poison-pen letter to the major studios.
Abetting Cecil are the Sprocket Holes, a scary band of indie geeks with diverse peccadilloes. There's a Satanist, a porn star, a drug addict, a trigger-happy sound technician and a hairdresser who's deeply ashamed of his heterosexuality. Given to desperate acts, they're like the Symbionese Liberation Army in fetish gear. (SLA grad Patty Hearst -- a regular Waters player -- shows up as the mother of one of the Sprockets.)
Why are these militants so angry? A vow of celibacy prohibits them from engaging in carnal activity until "Raving Beauty" wraps. "We're horny," Cecil admits, "but our film comes first."
"Cecil B. DeMented" is an eminently quotable film, stuffed with as much outrageous dialogue as any Waters product in memory. It has to be: Its actual plot barely fills its 89 minutes. Waters is so tickled by Cecil's defiance -- in largely disconnected vignettes, his brutal squad invades a multiplex, a film-board meeting and that "Gump" set -- that he short-changes Honey's crucial transformation from hostage to co-conspirator. As she pingpongs between escape fantasies and pledges of fealty, her motivation is impossible to pin down at any given moment.
Maybe the script isn't solely at fault: This is Melanie Griffith, after all. But the asymmetry of the two leads shows where Waters' affections lie. Notice which character's name supplies the movie's title, then wonder if the writer/director will be bold (and honest) enough to simply christen his next opus John Waters.