The hero of John Waters's gently subversive new romp, Pecker, is a happy Baltimore teenager of the same name whose primary pleasure is shooting neighborhood snapshots with an old thrift-shop camera. Girls on the bus preen for him. He captures dancers in the local strip club through a back-alley window. He frames his kleptomaniacal best friend, Matt (Brendan Sexton III), with his jacket stuffed full of swag and his sullen girlfriend, Shelley (Christina Ricci), who runs her laundromat with an iron fist, in mid-rant.
Pecker also photographs his own unruly, cartoon-strip family: bartender father, bellowing sugar-junkie little sister, fanatically Catholic grandmother who believes in miracles and throws her voice into a dummy of the Virgin Mary.
Can you sense what's coming from the underground hero of old, the director who gave us such cult hits as Polyester and Pink Flamingos?
Of course. Before you can say Basquiat, Waters sees to it that Pecker gets "discovered" by a big-shot Manhattan gallery owner (Lili Taylor), and the rout is quickly on. Instantly hailed as a major artist in the irony-infested snob precincts of New York, the natural, unaffected kid from blue-collar Baltimore first glories in his newfound celebrity. Then he loses his friends and teeters on the edge of emotional ruin. Then he regains his equilibrium with a joyous rebirth in his hometown, on his own terms.
Morals of the story: Baltimore (also Waters's hometown) is the real world; TriBeCa and the Whitney are for phonies; art is everywhere.
Of course, we already know all that, most of us: Aesthetic pretension has long been an easy target. Pecker features some hilarious Waters moments: Pecker's photo of two rats mating, blown up to gallery size; his baffled father reading aloud the inflated cant of the New York Times art critic; some riotous interplay in a male strip joint. And when the pouting little girlfriend yells, "I hate modern photography!" no one in the house will take issue with her.
But as a surreal, black-comic parable, the provocatively titled Pecker lacks the freewheeling punch of Waters's early work or of Serial Mom, in which he annihilated squeaky-clean American virtue with the vision of a suburban mother slaughtering her friends and neighbors. And the young star here, Edward Furlong (Terminator 2, The Grass Harp), is nothing if not sweet to a fault.
In the end, Pecker's anti-pomposity gets kind of preachy in its own right, looks a bit flat-footed and feels a touch sentimental. For diehard Waters fans, this satirical rip on the bitch-goddess of success, the evils of commerce and the follies of fashion may hit the spot. For everyone else, it's simply spotty.
Written and directed by John Waters. With Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci, Brendan Sexton III and Lili Taylor.