Filmmaker runs deep into R rating in latest movie

April 10, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

It's pretty much a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that John Waters has staked his career on.

Will they get it or won't they get it?

If they don't get it, they don't get it.

If they do get it, he's a hit.

So far, says the Baltimore-based director, with maniacal glee in his eye, "They get it."

The "it" they may or may not get is "Serial Mom," Waters' first film since 1990 and his first to use big-time movie stars, including Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston (though some of his old favorites -- Mink Stole, for example -- are present). It opens on Friday.

The movie, shot in northeast Baltimore and Towson last spring, is what might be called an irony-dependent film. If you understand, up front, that it's meant as a goof, then you can have yourself an old-time laugh riot, particularly when Mama skewers a boy with a fireplace poker and ends up with his liver on the point like a trout in "A River Runs Through It."

A river does run through it: a river of nastiness. If you tend to be reality-obsessed, the movie will be a long nightmare of blood and gore, and you'll leave it long before it leaves you.

But Waters, at least on the basis of early screenings, is pleased: "The response I see feels very, very much like the response I used to get on my old films. After the first screening, some kids put their thumbs up!"

That's the best news for the writer-director in a long time. His first films -- twisted, gross, but somehow innocent-spirited stories of Baltimore lowlife in full, crass flower -- were essays in trashy irony and put him and his native city on the map, at least in the rarefied swamps of cult movies. Mostly starring the late, cross-dressing Divine in extravagant grande-dame roles, they gave meaning to the term "a John Waters film."

At the same time, as an author and lecturer and talk-show habitue, Waters was turning himself, with that slicked-back hair and mysterious little lounge-lizard's mustache, into a national icon of kitsch. He turned outrageousness into a growth industry and, in strange ways, the culture got in line behind him.

Making himself a celebrity had its own advantages. He went national in a big way in 1988 with "Hairspray," made for New Line, and a bona fide hit. But his next film, "Cry-Baby," made for Universal, felt compromised by big-studio values and the necessity to receive a PG-13 rating. Who wanted to see a PG-13 John Waters movie? As it turned out, not many. There followed a few years of working with bigger studios on scripts that never made it to photography.

Now, defiant and uncompromising, and backed by a new studio called Savoy, the old Waters is back.

"I wanted to make an R movie. I was back in R, where I belong!"

"Serial Mom" is the complete R-R-Us project. It chronicles the sociopathic adventures of a Beaver's-mom-type housewife in the picturesque northeast Baltimore suburbs who always gets dressed early to fix a complete eggs-'n'-bacon breakfast for her happy family. She recycles, car pools, PTAs and kills. She whacks seven or eight people in the course of the film, always with that chipper June Cleaver smile on her bright face, her eyes loony and bright as shark's, her commitment as total as her commitment to vacuuming, and equally morally weighted.

Bad taste? Taste so bad it's truly wonderful. Best kill: In one wondrous moment, Serial Mom beats a woman to death with a leg of lamb while the tune "Tomorrow" from "Annie" blares on the VCR. ("I'm amazed we got the rights," Waters says in horror. "I know we had to pay through the teeth!")

Second best kill: Doug Roberts, the indefatigable Mr. Voice-over of a thousand Washington-Baltimore commercials, beloved gentleman with the pleasant, avuncular face of an Everyman, who could be your dad or your granddad or friendly Officer Mulroy, gets pulped by an air conditioner.

Of course it helps immensely that Kathleen Turner gives full-goose screwball energy to her interpretation of the innocent but murderous Beverly Sutphin. With that blank, blue-eyed stare and infernal perkiness, she pretty much commandeers the film.

"She liked playing the role," says Waters. "She was in a better mood on Mother's Day!"

Still, Waters is cautious.

"You never can be sure," he says now. "I continue to pray."

Guardedly optimistic, then, Waters remains his perdurable self, still modeled after the idea of a '50s hipster: still rapier-thin, still dressed largely in black, still boasting that little ruled line of facial hair -- does another mustache like this one exist anywhere on earth? -- he's got the same mocking irony in his humor and presence. Everything shocks him and nothing shocks him. Everything amuses him and nothing amuses him. Other people's hypocrisy is richly entertaining -- but so is his own.

"Oh, I'm guilty of everything I criticize," he says with mock horror. "And I only parody the things I love!"

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