John WatersMelanie GriffithAlicia WittStephen Dorff
Cecil B. Demented
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: John Waters
Keywords: Razzie-nominated, comedy, favourite
Country: USA
Actor: Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier, Larry Gilliard Jr., Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jack Noseworthy, Mink Stole, Ricki Lake, Patricia Hearst, Michael Shannon, Kevin Nealon, Eric Barry, Zenzele Uzoma, Erika Lynn Rupli, Harriet Dodge, Roseanne, Eric Roberts, Ray Felton, John Michaelson, Jewel Orem, Bill Grimmett, Jeffrey Wei, Mark Joy
Format: 87 minutes
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 11 October 2010
Obviously I know of John Waters, but I haven't actually watched that many of his films. I love Serial Mom, but I haven't even started on his early, underground stuff like Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos, etc. Don't worry though, they're on the list. Oooooooooh, boy, are they.
Coming more specifically to Cecil B. Demented, the interesting thing about it is how non-extreme it is. Waters clearly adores extreme cinema, be it gore, pornography or whatever, but the actual content in this film here is tame. No one's trying to be Takashi Miike. There's no nudity, not even in what's supposedly perverted hardcore porn. There's no real gore, even when people get shot in the head. The guerilla filmmakers are undeniably fringe members of society with all kinds of undesirable habits and beliefs, but they're also kinda lovable and don't seem in the slightest bit dangerous. You're on their side. John Waters is cheerleading for bad taste and sleaze, but he's doing so in the context of a movie that you could show to children.
However the movie has a completely different secret weapon: it's hilarious! If I'd known the film was this cool, I'd have been beating down doors to see it years ago. It started only okay, but then just kept getting ever more deranged. By the end, I was worried about waking people up in the next room.
Of course this is just my reaction. It looks as if the critics were split 50-50 on this. Half of them called it "a subversive cult masterpiece" and the other half said it was sloppy, lazy and like "a home movie". Me, I think both sides are wrong. John Waters has picked an easy target in the Hollywood movie industry and it would be absurd to call this subversive. However at the same time it's in no way amateurish and is instead for me one of the standout films of 2000. The level of Waters's filmmaking here is far more mainstream than it perhaps should have been given the subject matter, while his cast includes some really rather good actors (Stephen Dorff, Maggie Gyllenhaal). However at the same time, his trash sensibilities are making this one of the funniest comedies I've seen in ages.
The story's based on the real-life incident of how Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s and ended up joining their cause. Hearst also appears in this film, as she has in all of John Waters's films since Cry-Baby (1990). She's playing Fidget's mother. Melanie Griffith is playing a spoiled Hollywood actress who gets kidnapped by a zero-budget guerilla filmmaking army called the SprocketHoles and forced to play their leading role. This didn't sound promising. I'm not a big fan of "making a movie" movies as a genre, but here Waters makes it work by having his writer/director (Cecil B. Demented) doing his movie as performance art in real time. He goes to real locations, does his scenes with real members of the public and gets involved in real shootouts with the police. This is awesome. When one of his actors gets shot through the head... "It's okay, we got it on film."
He's no bastard, though. In fact he's likeable, in his insane neo-Communist way. He's just a passionate devotee to his cause, which is the promotion of underground cinema and the destruction of the Hollywood system. He's either the leader of a religious cult or a terrorist cell. Or both. One of the greatest things about the film is how devoted everyone is to Demented and how their demands of themselves are far greater than anything they make of other people. They're prepared to sacrifice their sex lives, for instance.
I loved his crew, although Waters is certainly making his social misfits improbably cuddly and non-threatening. His satanist is the cutest, most adorable thing you ever saw, for instance. The drug addict is a gentle soul and the porn star seems almost misty-eyed about pornography.
They become hilarious. However just as important an element in the film is Waters's celebration of trash culture. Hollywood-bashing is too obvious to make the film stand out by itself, but I love the way he gave us all these little communities defined by cinema and then gave them all their own little spotlight. You've got the conservative mothers who are worried about their children, the kung-fu action fans and (best of all) the patrons of the porn cinema. "I can't believe it's her. I beat off to her every night." I don't know how true to life this is, especially since the internet came along, but it's an extraordinary vignette of affection and a sense of community among loser perverts. I was on the floor. My favourite bit was the gerbil.
There are only two things that aren't great about this film, but I'm happy with both of them. The first is the ending. It's an odd, anticlimactic thing that wrong-footed me slightly, but a few minutes later I'd decided it was fitting and appropriate. The other is Melanie Griffith, who was nominated for Worst Actress at the 2000 Golden Raspberry Awards. I didn't think she was horrible, but there's an awful lot of potential she misses in the material. Compare her with Bill Murray's not dissimilar role in Groundhog Day, for instance. She's not a convincing bitch at the beginning, then later we don't really get much insight into what's going on inside her as she starts siding with Demented. I didn't disbelieve in her character and I adored the film, but she's certainly not holding a candle to, say, Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom.
This film is a joy. I was in stitches at its sly digs at mainstream conservative opinion, which admittedly I've denied are subversive but are at the very least mischievous. "We know you like R-rated movies and we're here to help!" You've got to love the role-reversal of the man disgusted with his own heterosexuality. Early on we meet a wheelchair-bound little boy who's just had heart surgery, who I expected to be shot dead but instead turns out to be a vulgar little shit. That's pretty good too. Oh, and Melanie Griffith's character used to be married to Eric Roberts.
I love this film. It took a bit of time to get going, but after a while it just tripped a switch in my head and suddenly I was in stitches at almost everything the SprocketHoles said or did. They're so passionate and so silly, all at the same time. The gunfights are hysterical. They truly believe. John Waters is my god.