Even at his most outrageous — say, the infamous cult classic Pink Flamingos, which ended with the great Divine eating actual dog excrement on-camera — the writer-director John Waters can’t disguise his essential good-heartedness, his affection for his characters. The more screwed up they are, the more he cherishes them. Serial Mom, Waters’ new comedy, is about a suburban wife and mother who kills people. Some may think Waters loves this woman because she’s an otherwise nice person. No. He loves her because she kills people. Always glad to set these things straight.
After the goofy PG fun of Hairspray and Cry-Baby, which seemed positively Disneyesque compared with Waters’ early work, Serial Mom finds him firmly back in R-rated territory. I enjoyed it more than any other movie so far this year, yet for the first time in his career, Waters’ satire isn’t quite cutting-edge. (This is a man who, in Polyester, found belly laughs in a trip to an abortion clinic.) Waters has always been preoccupied with killers; he has written often about his visits to murder trials, and his 1974 Female Trouble was a sort of dry run for Serial Mom. I think what’s happened is that, with the advent of Court TV and the media popularity of the Bobbitts and the Menendezes, the national interest in legal freak shows has dovetailed with Waters’ obsession, thus defanging his humor. Still, Serial Mom has more than enough bite in other areas.
Kathleen Turner is Beverly Sutphin, a happy housewife who takes pride in recycling and in making the perfect meat loaf. Her husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), a dentist, believes strongly in capital punishment — until the issue comes closer to home (one of Waters’ subtler, gutsier points). Daughter Misty (Ricki Lake) is boy-crazy; son Chip (Matthew Lillard) is a horror-movie addict. Waters introduces the family in a scene that plays as borderline parody (all it needs is a perky dog named Spot) and neatly establishes that Bev isn’t playing with a full deck: Tracking a fly around the breakfast table, she swats it bloodily and with a little too much enthusiasm.
Bev will spend the rest of Serial Mom swatting human flies. Waters stages the murders so that we laugh at them (Bev’s victims are all grotesque) but feel a twinge of guilt for laughing; after all, their deaths are far from justified. We watch Serial Mom going after people who don’t recycle, who don’t rewind rental videos before returning them, who cheat her out of a parking space. Waters wants us to identify with Bev’s homicidal rage; he wants us to admit to our own fleeting murderous impulses (who hasn’t momentarily wanted to kill some asshole who cuts us off on the highway?) that we hold in check. Bev doesn’t hold back. After her arrest, of course, she becomes a “feminist heroine” who charms the jury, and Suzanne Somers angles to play her in the inevitable TV movie.
Serial Mom is consistently witty. Waters’ moment of glory here is the leg-of-lamb murder (perhaps a tribute to the famous Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “Lamb to the Slaughter”), in which blood spatters a TV screen playing Annie; the point is made but not lingered on. There’s a great appearance by the hard-driving all-female band L7, playing a band called Camel Lips, at a concert where the crowd respectfully parts for the now-notorious Serial Mom. (Waters’ staging of this scene’s orgasmic fiery murder is ingenious: exciting enough to get you cheering along with the concert audience, fierce enough to make you wince.) I’d rather not give away all the jokes, as some critics (i.e. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone) have done, but there’s a giddy bit of vintage Waters profanity when Bev crank-calls her snippy neighbor (Waters regular Mink Stole).
Kathleen Turner, who proved her aptitude for gleeful sadism in The War of the Roses, gives a twinkly, crowd-pleasing performance. When she’s sprinting after her prey with sharp objects, she’s as funny-scary as the Terminator. The purposeful way she takes off after one victim or another (These jerks aren’t gonna get away from me!) is classic physical comedy. Turner is funniest, though, at her most wholesome; her All-American-Mom facade grows more absurd as the movie goes on. Waters’ true comic find here, though, is Sam Waterston, vacationing from a career of well-appointed television. Waterston scores more laughs with his eyebrows (they’re always curled up in bafflement, like bushy question marks) than most actors manage with their entire bodies.
I’d love to recommend Serial Mom wholeheartedly. For the most part, I do. Yet I can’t help pointing out that Waters has essentially made this movie before, and more daringly. (The slogan of Female Trouble was “Crime is beauty.”) His script here is an excellent expansion of a one-joke idea, and the one joke is the title. Waters began writing Serial Mom years ago, so it isn’t his fault that it parodies what has become a self-parody: the American fascination with sordid murder cases, the cult of criminal celebrity (which in this country goes back at least to Lizzie Borden). When Bev’s family hawks Serial Mom T-shirts outside the courthouse, we flash on John Wayne Bobbitt selling his own line of shirts. The concept of a man marketing his own mutilation is right out of a John Waters film, and unfortunately it trumps most of the excesses offered in this John Waters film.
In the past, John Waters shocked us into laughter by skewering traditional values (and those who would actually watch a Waters film probably never took those values very seriously in the first place). Here he skewers himself, too: He’s as hooked on true-crime stories as anyone, and his movie itself is implicated. Waters, an openly gay filmmaker who has never made much of his sexuality (it rarely comes up in interviews, and you wouldn’t think of any of his films as “gay-interest movies”), used to respond to society’s rejection of him by violently rejecting society. He drew more blood when he was irresponsible and nasty, and we shared his affection for his outcasts — he was like Andy Warhol with a raucous, teasing sense of humor and a natural entertainer’s instinct. Serial Mom, however, has a whiff of moral rectitude about it. Has Waters actually grown up? Now that’s shocking. Waters gets us hooting at Bev’s kill sprees, then tweaks us for being murder groupies. He actually has a young horror-movie fan exclaim, after finding one of Bev’s victims, “That was real blood, not gore, like in the movies! It was real!” — at which exact moment I knew that John Waters has become kinder and gentler. (The old Waters would’ve had the kid get off on seeing real blood.) Serial Mom is often hilarious; Waters remains our best working comedy director. But is there anything left for him to puncture? The film may be a bad-boy satirist’s mournful acceptance that America has finally become sicker than anything he could dream up.