John Waters has mellowed considerably since his 1972 Pink Flamingos, which holds up today as both a work of outrage and a work of very demented art. But if he’s lost interest in shocking the audience, he’s made up for it by refining what his movies, stripped of all the calculated offenses to human decency, have really been about all along: lovingly crafted melodramas, always set in a cartoony-grungy Baltimore, peopled with obsessive caricatures. The key word is “obsessive”: Waters cherishes nothing more than people with one-track minds.
Thus Pecker, whose eponymous hero (named because of his childhood habit of picking at his food) is a compulsive shutterbug, taking snapshots of everything and everyone he sees; his little sister is a shrieking sugar addict, his older sister a cheerful bartender in a gay hot-spot; his grandmother has a talking Virgin Mary in her room; his best friend is an inveterate shoplifter; his girlfriend, a laundromat clerk, is a ferocious stickler for the rules (“You can’t dye your clothes in my washers!”). Pecker has its flat-footed moments, and sometimes unfolds like a banal sitcom about the price of fame, but God is in the details, and these characters and their preoccupations could only emerge from one imagination.
Pecker (Edward Furlong, having fun with an atypically innocent role) captures whatever images catch his eye, however ugly or mundane. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Pecker is autobiographical, as Waters’ films since Hairspray have tended, more or less, to be. When Pecker displays his seemingly artless art, and when it’s discovered by a New York art dealer (Lili Taylor, who’s never looked more glam) and embraced by urban hipsters eager to demonstrate their cutting-edge taste, you know you’re seeing the origin story of Waters’ aesthetic and its gradual acceptance. Like Waters, Pecker makes unlikely stars of the unlovely and weird people surrounding him in Baltimore — a preconscious artist who just shoots whatever appeals to him.
The movie is fast and warmly generous towards just about everyone on the screen — even the art dealer, who in a lesser comedy might have been the villain, seems genuine in her fascination with Pecker’s work. (She wants to make him the next Diane Arbus — that’s her obsession. In Waters territory, anyone who’s obsessed with something can’t be all bad.) Like other twisted directors like David Lynch and David Cronenberg, Waters grew up in a perfectly normal and generally happy family, and his respect and love for Pecker’s oddball but supportive family links the movie to his previous effort, 1994’s Serial Mom, where Kathleen Turner’s husband and children adored her even when she started her killing sprees.
If there’s a weakness this time out, it’s that some of the characters — like Martha Plimpton’s outgoing bartender or Christina Ricci’s laundromat Nazi — are sketched in and then pushed to the side when we want to see more of them. I could have done without one or two scenes of the Virgin-Mary-toting grandma (Jean Scherter) or Pecker’s klepto buddy (Brendan Sexton III) in favor of one long scene with Ricci, Plimpton, and Lili Taylor just sitting around talking about men. Think what Waters might have done with that. In general, though, Pecker is light and bubbly and affectionate, the kind of comedy Hollywood has forgotten how to make. And the spirit of the late, great Divine — the 300-pound female impersonator and one-time star of the Waters troupe — lives on in Lauren Hulsey, who plays Little Chrissy, Pecker’s fructose-crazed baby sister. Little Chrissy’s tunnel-visioned quest for the next sugar high (and the substitute she eventually finds) is 100% pure Waters: she makes us laugh at our own obsessions and fetishes, just like her creator.