In his days as an enfant terrible, the most notorious moviemaker in Baltimore served up raw sensation, black comedy and low camp to fringe audiences who prided themselves on all manner of deviance. Those raucous midnight screenings of Pink Flamingos and Polyester in the Seventies and Eighties were not for the faint of heart, and the John Waters cult was no place for sorority girls or Reagan Republicans.
Serial Mom is Waters's most conventional effort yet, but it's nowhere near the mainstream--despite the presence of seemingly respectable Hollywood actors Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston. You can take the boy out of the underground, but you can't take the underground out of the boy.
Skim John Waters's bio and you learn that he grew up in the Baltimore suburb of (where else?) Lutherville, where he went to private grade school and a Catholic boys' high school. Understandably, he got out of town early. But he never forgot the absurdities.
In Serial Mom, Waters returns to suburbia, where the hedges are still neatly trimmed, the meatloaf is still baking in the oven and the local PTA keeps meeting in earnest. But Waters understands that almost everyone has a secret life: In this happily reckless dark comedy, the sunniest, best-groomed, most conventional mother on the block is a stone killer. Mad as a loon, perky Beverly Sutphin (Turner) will run over her son Chip's math teacher because the kid (Matthew Lillard), who's interested only in slasher flicks, is about to get a D. She'll take out a neighbor who fails to dispose of her soda bottles. She'll bludgeon an old lady to death with a leg of lamb because she's neglected to rewind a videotape. Just for fun, she'll torment the woman down the block with obscene phone calls.
Not only that, Mom becomes quite a celebrity for her bloody exploits. Hey, Suzanne Somers wants to play her in the TV series.
"Is it menopausal?" asks Beverly's straight-man dentist husband (Waterston). No, it's John Waters at work, deflating the current bluster about family values, the row over pornography and the American obsessions with fame and sensation. Waters imparts a surreal tilt to these goings-on, but his view of society is just slightly skewed. Here, Joan Rivers's latest TV gabfest deals with "Women Who Love Men Who Mutilate" (which is barely an exaggeration), and when crazed Beverly torches a teenager in a heavy-metal club, the moshers cheer the spectacle (which is no exaggeration at all).
Waters knocks off sundry sacred cows with batty, subversive glee. So does Turner. Until now she's been more femme fatale than comedienne, but her timing is brilliant here. The blithe Donna Reed grin she gives to the homicide detectives snooping around her neat-as-a-pin living room and the jaunty efficiency with which she careens her station wagon across the neat lawns of her neighbors are just right. After all, Beverly knows the rules. Always wear seat belts. Never chew gum. And if your daughter Misty's (Ricki Lake) new boyfriend dumps her, stab him in the back with a fire poker at the flea market.
As always, Waters spices his film with offbeat details and odd quirks. When garbagemen come to pick up Beverly's trash, she greets them with little bottles of airline whiskey. Once she's a local celebrity, her daughter's friend exults: "You're bigger than Freddy or Jason now--and you're a real person!" At the Serial Mom's wonderfully ridiculous day in court, even the judge is susceptible to the glamorous arrival of the quasi-Beverly, Suzanne Somers. And one of the jurors is played by Patty Hearst. Yes, that Patty Hearst.
Waters's bold tastelessness has always been his strength. Now that his movies cost more than $39.95 to make, he's smoothed off some of the rough edges, but his comic revolutionist's mind remains keenly at work. Pornography is not pornographic, it says here, sanctimony is. The most dangerous violence is not on TV but in the conventional wisdom. There's something screwy about a mass culture that glorifies the Menendez brothers while it obsesses over recycling, that turns murder trials into feeding frenzies for entertainment agents and doesn't know the difference between a serial killer and a TV star. There's even something screwy about Mom, home and apple pie. And about the soundtrack from Annie.
Don't believe it? John Waters's unfettered, wildly funny satire about the demons of suburbia makes a very good case.